DeLay exits but leaves corruption behind

Rep. Tom DeLay’s fall from power amid a widening scandal robs Democrats of “Exhibit A” in their allegations of Republican corruption, but analysts said on Tuesday it was unlikely to put the issue behind Republicans before November’s elections.

With control of Congress at stake in November, DeLay said he was dropping his bid for re-election so the party would have a better shot at keeping the Texan’s Republican-leaning seat in the southern suburbs of Houston.

“I think I could have won the seat, but it would have been nasty. It would have cost a fortune to do it,” DeLay told Fox News. He said left-wing groups had made his race against Democratic challenger Nick Lampson a rallying point.

The former House Republican leader, indicted in Texas on campaign finance charges, also plans to resign from Congress. The move came after his former deputy chief of staff last week became the second DeLay aide to plead guilty to corruption charges in a probe of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Republicans hoped the resignation of DeLay, who has denied any wrongdoing, would also help them get past a series of scandals. Those include the indictment of top vice presidential aide Lewis Libby in a probe into the leaking of a CIA operative’s identity, and the guilty plea of Rep. Randy Cunningham in a bribery case.

But analysts said the move would do little to help Republicans escape the corruption issue as they fight to keep Democrats from capturing the 15 seats needed to regain control of the House of Representatives.

“The Republicans are whistling past the graveyard,” said Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “Democrats are going to prop DeLay up in his chair and keep him alive for voters. They are going to play the Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff card until November.”

Democrats said there were many other opportunities to make a case about Republican corruption and abuse of power.

“DeLay may be gone, but nothing has changed,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic House campaign committee. He cited the Congress’ failure to pass ethics and lobbying reforms.

Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said DeLay’s departure robbed Republican conservatives of a leader and weakened an image of discipline and competency House Republicans had honed under DeLay.

“If DeLay is indicted it will be a huge blow to Republicans whether he is in Congress or sitting in Virginia,” she said.

DeLay survived a primary last month by winning 62 percent of the vote against three little known Republican challengers, but faced a much tougher test in November against Lampson.

“This is probably the worst day of his campaign because he knows that any Republican who replaces me on the ballot will win this seat,” DeLay said of Lampson, a former congressman whose battle with DeLay would have been one of the most expensive and closely watched House fights in the country.

DeLay’s district gave President George W. Bush 64 percent of the vote in the 2004 White House race, but DeLay won in 2004 with only 55 percent.

DeLay’s retirement “gives us a much better opportunity to win this seat,” House Republican campaign committee spokesman Carl Forti said. “He did what was best for the party and stepped aside.”

Lampson’s campaign manager, Mike Malaise, said the Democrat already had raised nearly $2.5 million and was in good shape to take on any Republican entrant.

“A lot of the folks who are saying that Republicans are in better shape in this race with DeLay out of it are the same people who were saying two days ago that Tom DeLay couldn’t be beaten,” Malaise said.

© 2006 Reuters