LEAGUE CITY — Ron Paul is a tough act to follow, and the major Republican candidates running to replace him in Congress are not even trying.
It is hard enough to get voters to remember their names — there are nine Republicans running — in an election that is rife with confusion because of a delayed primary date and redrawn boundaries. And for all the hero worship Paul has cultivated among a small but vocal subset of the electorate, nobody is rushing to imitate “Dr. No.”
“I don’t get a sense that people are looking for the next Ron Paul,” said Jay Old, a Beaumont lawyer and the top fundraiser in the crowded field. “I think they are looking for people who want the very best for the district.”
Partisan gerrymandering often turns political jurisdictions into zig-zagging monstrosities, but the redrawn Congressional District 14 is straightforward and compact. It starts at the southeast corner of Texas, along the Louisiana border, and going west picks up two whole coastal counties, Jefferson and Galveston, and about half of another, Brazoria. It was not what Paul, the 76-year-old physician, had in mind. The district lost much of its rural character, and he faced the daunting prospect of introducing himself to about 300,000 people who were not in the old version of the district.
Though he is running for president, Paul could have also legally sought re-election, as he did in 2008. Paul is now in his 12th term.
He quit instead, and the race to fill his Republican-leaning seat has become a free-for-all among Republicans. If none of the nine candidates wins half of the vote outright on May 29, the top two will face off in a July 31 runoff. That appears to be the most likely scenario.
Whoever emerges will probably face former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, who has strong ties to the area and an even stronger conviction that the seat will be competitive in the fall. There are 11 major party candidates altogether, plus Zach Grady, a Libertarian, running for the seat.
There are four Republican candidates whose money and political connections give them the best shot at making a runoff. Old has raised the most and had $308,000 cash on hand, as of the last reporting period, which ended in April. He is already running TV ads, but his history of voting in past Democratic primaries and donations to Democratic candidates have prompted criticism from his Republican opponents.
Old, 48, said Democrats traditionally dominated elections in his native Jefferson County, and that when there are no options in the Republican primary, “that means you pick the most qualified, most conservative candidate the other side offers.”
Michael Truncale, another well-financed Republican from Beaumont, is stressing his grassroots appeal and political reach as a State Republican Executive Committee member. At last count, Truncale, 54, a lawyer and former Texas State University System regent, had $149,000 in the bank.
One possible factor working against both men is their home county: Its tradition of voting for Democrats means Republican turnout could be much lower there than in the western part of the district.
That is one reason state Rep. Randy Weber of Pearland is expected to make the runoff. The owner of an air-conditioning company he started in 1981, Weber touts his 2009 designation as the most conservative member of the Texas House, as scored by the Texas Conservative Coalition. He also picked up Gov. Rick Perry’s endorsement.
“I have a track record of conservative action,” said Weber, who traces his political activism to former President Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid. “I don’t just know all the talking points. I’ve lived them for 29 years.” Weber had raised $282,000 for the race and had the second-highest cash-on-hand figure in the Republican field, $227,000, as of the last reporting period.
Weber, 58, did not initially live in the district after it was redrawn, but he moved into it after questions were raised about his residency. Representatives must live in the state they represent, but residing outside a district’s boundaries often provides fodder for opponents.
Another Republican in the race, Felicia Harris, a Pearland City Council member, said the fact that she lives a few miles outside the district has had no impact. She said she would move into it if she were to win.
Though she has raised less than half the money Weber has brought in, Harris said her experience as a lawyer in the energy and petrochemical industries make her a natural fit for the coastal district, which has five ports.
Harris, 42, does not shy from distinguishing herself from Paul, and proudly notes that she is the only female in the race.
“I think most people are ready for a younger voice” and “a fresh face,” she said. “Just look at me. I’m not Dr. Paul.” Harris said there is no shame in seeking federal money for the district — a break from the pork-hating Paul — particularly with so many ports to maintain.
“This is a district that requires federal support; it requires federal attention,’’ said Harris, who had $77,000 in the bank according to the most recent disclosures.
One darkhorse Republican candidate, Robert Gonzalez of Clear Lake, had raised less than $10,000 at last count, but his strong Tea Party credentials give him an outside shot at making the runoff.
While the Republicans duke it out in their hotly contested race, Lampson is considered a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. He raised $316,000 and had $272,000 on hand at last count.
Lampson, 67, argues that he has a decent shot at winning in November because of his recognizable name, his deep ties to the coastal region and a newly configured district whose voting age population is now 40 percent minority.
He acknowledges, though, that he will be swimming upstream when it comes to defending President Obama in the Republican-leaning district.
“I doubt very seriously if he will carry District 14,” Lampson said. “I’m not going to run away from President Obama, but I think I will be judged on what I stand for.”