HOUSTON – Nobody, but nobody in Washington was quite like Ron Paul.
Three times a candidate for president, elected to Congress in three different eras, he repeatedly defied not only the Republican leadership but also the Republican orthodoxy. Outspokenly opposed to the war in Iraq, his unwavering libertarian viewpoints won him generations of deeply loyal supporters.
Now the contrarian libertarian is retiring, throwing his congressional seat wide open.
One of two men will succeed him: A Republican confident his anti-Obama rhetoric resonates with voters, or a Democrat who’s openly bragging the election is his to lose.
Randy Weber, the Republican, is a state lawmaker whose stump speeches echo with talking points taken straight from the GOP gospel, linking his opponent to liberalism, Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi.
“Cut taxes, cut government spending, kick that liberal agenda to the curb and get America working again,” he said to a friendly crowd that gathered recently in a Kemah hardware store. “Y’all okay with that?”
Nick Lampson, the Democrat, is a former congressman who spent ten years representing two southeast Texas districts, a smiling southeast Texas backslapper polished in the retail politics of running for federal office.
“I would still be there, ladies and gentlemen, if they hadn’t changed the rules on me,” he recently joked before a crowd at a League City barbecue.
Actually, Lampson might still be there if Republicans in the state house hadn’t changed the district lines on him. And those shifting lines say a lot about why Ron Paul’s district won’t elect another Ron Paul.
Texas gained four congressional seats after the last census, so state lawmakers had to squeeze four new districts into the state’s redistricting map.
During Paul’s tenure, the 14th congressional district of Texas covered mostly rural counties south of Houston, sweeping along the coastline into Galveston. Now, thanks to the redrawn lines, it’s a different district running entirely through Brazoria, Galveston and Jefferson counties.
The Republican dominated state legislature drew it to remain a GOP district, so Weber would seem to have the advantage. But Lampson brags that he has already represented nearly 80 percent of the territory in the district during his previous terms in Congress.
Weber’s claim to the seat seems straightforward. He’s the Republican candidate in a Republican district and his conservative credentials look rock solid. He launched his heating and air conditioning business the same year President Reagan moved into the White House, jumping into city politics the following decade. Weber served six years on Pearland’s city council between 1990 and 1996.
After a dozen years out of elected office, Weber won election to the Texas Legislature in 2008. He brags about winning awards from conservative groups for his staunch support of conservative causes.
Lampson’s long political resume looks so complex you almost need to diagram it with maps. A native of Beaumont, he spent almost twenty years serving as Jefferson County’s tax assessor before winning his first seat in Congress in 1996. The contentious redistricting plan engineered by DeLay redrew his district and delivered it to the GOP in 2004.
A year later, Lampson enjoyed a taste of revenge against DeLay, who had resigned under a cloud of scandal. A fluke series of events allowed Lampson to run for DeLay’s old district in an election with no Republicans on the ballot. Lampson served one term before his inevitable loss to Republican Pete Olson.
“Having spent more than $20 million branding my name over the years, having the successes that I had, it’s not a district that will lean Republican or Democratic,” Lampson says. “I really believe that it leans Lampson.”
Both candidates work crowds with the casual, yet outgoing demeanor of polished politicians. But as soon as they start talking politics, one distinction is abundantly clear: Weber plays to the right and Lampson plays to the center.
Lampson talks to luncheon crowds about the importance of political cooperation in Washington. Weber brooks no quarter with what he calls “the liberal agenda” when he talks to voters.
“They want common sense,” he says. “They want lower taxes. They want fewer job killing regulations. They do not want Obamacare. So I think if anything the people in this very conservative district don’t want the Obama-Pelosi-Lampson agenda.”
But both candidates noticeably dance around one subject: Ron Paul. Weber points out that, even though he and Paul hail from the same party, they’re not the same man. And Lampson jokes that, unlike his congressional colleagues, he never avoided riding next to Paul on airplanes.
So no matter which candidate wins, whoever voters send to Washington to replace Ron Paul, he won’t be another Ron Paul.