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DeLay's Victories Endure, Even if He Loses in Court

Tom DeLay is still in court a decade after engineering a Republican victory that resulted in convictions for conspiracy and money laundering. He might still win, but either way, his party came out ahead.

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While voters are deciding how to vote in the 2012 election, lawyers for Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, are still litigating the 2002 election.

The Sugar Land Republican’s lawyers went before a panel of three Texas judges this week to appeal his conviction on money laundering and conspiracy charges, wailing about the criminalization of politics in the United States.

DeLay wasn’t there — his lawyers said that he and they did not want to create a sideshow that might detract from their legal arguments. And this appeal hinges on some pretty fine points. It’s hardly about DeLay anymore, except that he’s the guy who will go to jail if the courts don’t overturn his convictions.

It’s come down to the definition of money — specifically, whether the law regulating political “funds” included “checks.” Also, to whether an everyday conspiracy to win an election edged into the legal definition of an illegal conspiracy.

Sure, they conspired, but did they break the law? Then there’s the argument over whether what they did with the money was an illegal swap of corporate money — which couldn’t be used in campaigns in Texas at the time — for noncorporate money, which could be.

That’s important, particularly if you’re waiting to see whether you’re going to have to spend up to three years in prison — if, in other words, you’re Tom DeLay.

For the rest of us, the verdict has already been delivered.

Campaign finance laws have changed since DeLay got in trouble; for political purposes, corporations really are people, according to the federal courts. But DeLay’s venture left behind some political landmarks, like mid-decade redistricting and a particular brand of winner-take-all politics that still defines elections in the state.

The Republicans elected to the Legislature in 2002 — particularly those elected to the Texas House — transformed government and politics in the state.

They elected a Republican House speaker — the first one since Reconstruction.

In 2003, they threw out redistricting maps drawn in 2001 by a split Legislature (Democratic House, Republican Senate), substituting their own, much more Republican-friendly maps. Along the way, they won an important case at the United States Supreme Court, which ruled lawmakers can draw new maps whenever they want — not just at the beginning of the decades when new census numbers come out.

They have enjoyed an uninterrupted 10-year Republican hold on Texas government. Rick Perry has been governor since December 2000. The Senate has increased what was then the narrowest of majorities to a near-supermajority. And the House, bolstered by the anti-Obama wave of 2010, currently has two Republicans for every Democrat.

The Republicans expect to lose a handful of seats in the House this year, mainly because 2010 gave them temporary hold of Democratic political turf. They’ll be able to sort through the election results and make sure the political maps are as favorable to them and unfavorable to the Democrats as can be. If they want to make some tweaks, they’ll probably have the votes to do it, and because of DeLay, the courts won’t be telling them to stop.

It’s not a permanent Republican majority — “permanent” in politics means 20 or 30 years. But you can get a lot done in three decades, and when Republicans go down their lists of people to thank, they’ll have national Democrats, whose relative liberalism pushed conservatives out of the Texas Democratic Party. They’ll have the Bush family, who put a local flavor on national politics and helped keep the Texas Republican Party running in more or less the same direction. And they’ll have people like DeLay, who assembled a knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone campaign to get a Republican majority in the Texas House that would draw maps replacing Democrats in the Texas Congressional delegation with Republicans, giving the national Republicans a majority, and incidentally installing a Republican juggernaut that would dominate state legislative politics, so far, for a decade.

Appellate judges are deciding whether DeLay should serve the prison term handed to him in January 2011 or whether he should walk.

He wasn’t in court this week, but a number of party officials and consultants were there, watching the arguments and showing their support. They were relaxed — they’ve already won.

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