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Redistricting battle

2004 Vote | Thanks to new electoral maps engineered by the GOP , experts believe three to five veteran Democrats could be swept from office in the Lone Star State this year

Issue: "2004 Election: Clinch time," Oct. 30, 2004

In Texas' 32nd Congressional District, the race between two incumbents, Democrat Martin Frost and Republican Pete Sessions, isn't just another Dallas-area political squabble. It's a sinkhole of political spending, with each candidate raising about $4 million, making it one of the most expensive House races ever.

But the race is also the emblem of redistricting, a state political war with national implications. Thanks to new electoral maps engineered by the GOP (and masterminded by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay), experts believe three to five veteran Democrats could be swept from office in the Lone Star State this year. That amounts to an insurance policy for the Republican House leadership: With the GOP's current 12-seat advantage and another five on the line in Texas, Democrats would have to pick up nearly 20 seats around the country to wrest control of the lower chamber.

With so much at stake, it's small wonder that redistricting has been the state's No. 1 political battle for more than a year now. In October 2003, the state's legislature approved a controversial redistricting plan designed to sweep Democrats from the majority in the state's congressional delegation. The controversy drew national attention when a delegation of Democratic state lawmakers fled across the Oklahoma border to avoid a vote on redistricting. Later, 11 Democratic state senators retreated to Albuquerque, N.M., for 45 days to avoid a quorum call.

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Once the legislature finally approved the plan, Mr. Frost found he had no safe haven. The GOP mapmakers had taken Mr. Frost's district, situated in the suburbs between Dallas and Ft. Worth, and split it five ways. The effect was to spread out loyally Democratic minorities across adjacent Republican districts.

Turnabout is fair play, contend Republicans, including Pete Sessions's campaign manager, who admitted with a wink and a nod that drawing the veteran Democrat out of a job was part of the redistricting plan. After all, Mr. Frost led a push of anti-GOP redistricting efforts in the early 1990s across the country. In Texas, he negotiated districts that snaked for hundreds of miles and one, in Dallas, that resembled a tarantula.

In a 6-point hole according to a newspaper poll leading up to Election Day, Mr. Frost may have only himself to blame. Sessions campaign manager Chris Homan said he was shocked when the Democrat zeroed in on his boss, a four-term incumbent, as an opponent. According to Mr. Homan, the Democrat could have moved to Dallas and chosen among three races that would have been easier to win. "He could have chosen from two freshman congressmen or a [Republican] state legislator."

Mr. Homan believes Mr. Frost's decision was personal: half vendetta, half tilting at windmills. In early January, after federal judges upheld the new congressional map, Mr. Frost seemed every bit the cornered animal. "I'm going to be some Republican's worst nightmare," he told The Dallas Morning News. "Some Republican is going to wake up next week and have a bad day."

The two lawmakers have sparred repeatedly on the powerful House Rules Committee, where Mr. Frost is the ranking Democrat. Mr. Homan recalled a phone conversation he had with his boss just after Mr. Frost announced he would run in the 32nd District. "I said, 'That doesn't make any sense. He could find an easier opponent.' He said, 'You have no idea the depth at which Martin Frost dislikes me.'" The Frost campaign did not return phone calls for comment.

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