LEAGUE CITY, Texas (AP) — In Ron Paul's congressional district of 15 years, Democrats such as art gallery owner Elisabeth Lanier feel this could finally be their year to take the seat — and not because of the political climate or how district lines were redrawn.
It's because "Dr. No" is no longer on the ballot.
"I'm sure he's a nice man and so forth," said Lanier, whose Galveston storefront was swamped with seven feet of water during Hurricane Ike in 2008, when Paul absorbed criticism for not doing more for his storm-battered constituents. "But he did virtually nothing and feels that government should do nothing."
Vying to succeed Paul are Republican state Rep. Randy Weber, who has Paul's endorsement, and former Democratic Congressman Nick Lampson, who replaced disgraced House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in his last stint in the U.S. House. It's one of only two competitive congressional races in Texas, though Weber has an edge in the coastal district that leans Republican.
Paul seldom had to worry about losing. He won re-election with at least 60 percent of the vote in his last six tries, including twice when Democrats didn't even bother putting a candidate on the ballot. He announced his retirement from Congress last year before announcing what became his latest failed presidential bid.
So much of a juggernaut was Paul — and his national legion of supporters who kept his campaign pocketbook flush — that local Democrats groused about the national party never putting money behind a challenger. Patricia Gray, a former state Democratic lawmaker from Galveston, has recalled party brass telling her that Paul couldn't be beat.
In the 14th Congressional District, Paul was a fixture on the biking trails in his hometown of Lake Jackson, sent cookbooks to his constituents and would sometimes answer the phone in his office. But apart from endorsing Weber, he has kept a low profile this campaign.
With Paul out of the picture, Democrats think their chances have greatly improved. The Democratic National Campaign Committee has given Lampson $5,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Lampson also has outraised Weber, who owns an air conditioning and heating business and has loaned himself $226,500 in the race.
"It may be (Republican-leaning)," Lampson said of the district. "But in the case of the congressional race, with the two people that are in it, I honestly believe it will not perform in that way. I'm different."
The district is different than before, too.
Calling it Paul's district is technically correct. But the voting boundaries and demographics considerably shifted under the new redistricting maps passed by the Texas Legislature. They had to squeeze in four new congressional districts statewide on account of the state's population boom over the past decade.
Under Paul, the district mostly covered a patchwork of rural counties south of Houston and crept into Galveston. Now the district exclusively runs through the counties of Brazoria, Galveston and Jefferson, where Lampson lives. Nearly 80 percent of the district covers territory that Lampson has represented in Congress before, according to his campaign.
Weber proved himself one of the most conservative members of the Legislature during his four years in Austin, and he's not vying for moderate voters in this campaign. During a debate this month in League City — the windows in the ballroom overlooked a bay of yachts — Weber not once uttered Paul's name but repeatedly mentioned former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while trying to paint Lampson as an entrenched liberal.
"If it's between Texas way of doing business as conservative, as opposed to the national way of doing business, the big tax-and-spend Obama-Pelosi-Lampson way, I think you have to give the edge to Texas every time," Weber said. "And this district is a super big player in our Texas economy."
Lampson has sought to distance himself from a purely Democrat label. Even after the debate, when asked if he supported President Barack Obama, Lampson only said, "I will be voting Democrat."
At a cluster of youth baseball and football fields near the yacht resort, Michael Novominsky, 46, said he didn't know much about the congressional candidates he'll be sizing up in November. But he described himself as a staunch conservative whose priorities are what he called a "return to values" and stopping the Obama agenda, putting him most aligned with Weber.
Watching his son finish football practice, Novominsky praised Paul apart from his foreign policy stance, which opposed any U.S. military involvement overseas. But mostly, Paul was the type of candidate he could vote for again.
"He stayed on track. He doesn't deviate," said Novominsky. "If you could take parts of Ron Paul and put it in some of these politicians that would be great."
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber