With lead actor gone, foes talk up 'DeLayism'
In announcing his plans to resign from the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay said that a prime reason was that his re-election bid in Texas was looking less and less like a sure thing. Despite a Republican advantage among registered voters in Texas's 22nd District, DeLay said his race against Democrat Nick Lampson had become "a referendum on me" and that he was eager to keep the seat in GOP hands.
But DeLay also had a bigger political problem on his mind. As the federal investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff continued to elicit guilty pleas from his former aides, the former House majority leader feared that he'd become a liability to the GOP going into the 2006 elections.
"He clearly is a lightning rod, and he knows that he's taking a poster boy away from [the Democrats]," says a DeLay aide. "That goes well beyond Texas 22. He understands national congressional politics as well as anyone."
Now, some Democrats who have used DeLay as the centerpiece of a campaign to paint the GOP as the embodiment of the "culture of corruption" are growing a bit nervous that they've lost their poster boy. Or, in the words of MoveOn.org Political Action's Tom Matzzie, their "comic book supervillain."
After DeLay's announcement, Democrats rushed into post-DeLay mode.
"Tom DeLay himself has never been the issue," Howard Dean wrote in an E-mail to Democratic supporters on Tuesday afternoon. "DeLay is a symptom of a larger diseasea sick Republican culture of corruption that touches everyone who took his dirty money, voted for his corrupt leadership, or sat silently while their party has sold our government to the highest bidder."
The Democrats and their progressive allies face the challenge of crafting a message that moves past DeLay while keeping his name in circulation.
"When we talk about Tom DeLay, what we're really talking about is Tom DeLayism," says David Donnelly, campaign director for the Public Campaign Action Fund. "It's the pay-to-play system that DeLay perfected and inculcated in our political system."
Some progressive activists said the notion that DeLay was no longer an issue in the midterm elections represented GOP spin.
"The fact that DeLay resigned makes him more obviously culpable, because in the minds of voters, he must be guilty," says Matzzie. Now the question turns to "which members of Congress took $40,000 from DeLay and why they need to give that money back."
Calls for Republican House members to return donations received from DeLay's political action committee had already begun by Tuesday evening. Andrew Horne, a Democratic challenger to Kentucky Rep. Anne Northup, called for the congresswoman to return to DeLay a $42,000 donation.
"We need to restore the faith that votes used to have in the people's house, now a hotbed of lobbying corruption and special-interest scandal," says Horne. "The head of the snake might be gone," Horne continues, referring to DeLay, "but there's a lot left to worry about."
Liberal groups say they take solace in the fact that DeLay's eventual trial in Texas on money-laundering charges and the possibility of more indictments in the federal probe promise to keep him in the news until Election Day. Says Matzzie: "There are going to be trial dates for [DeLay] and his cronies that are going to be pit stops in the race toward the November election."
Still, the official Democratic apparatus appears sensitive to being perceived as fighting yesterday's battle. In a memo to reporters, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee branded Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana "the new Tom DeLay." Democrats have fingered Burns as the top congressional beneficiary of Abramoff's money machine.
"With Tom DeLay exiting stage right," the memo says, "Sen. Conrad Burns now lays sole claim to being the face of Republican corruption in Washington."