WASHINGTON — Larry Joe Doherty is not your run-of-the-mill congressional candidate.
As the judge on Texas Justice, a TV court show, the cowboy-hat-toting Doherty was known for his folksy pronouncements as well as for his too-Texas-by half show opener astride a horse as he approached the Houston skyline.
Doherty is running against Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, in the 10th District, which stretches from Austin to the western Houston suburbs.
Michael Skelly is also a different kind of Texas candidate: an Irish immigrant who created a successful wind energy company. He is running against Rep. John Culberson in the 7th District, in a wealthy section of Houston.
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Both Democrats are political neophytes who are mounting competitive challenges to Republican incumbents in the still-red Lone Star State. In a show of confidence, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has moved both races into its Red to Blue program.
The 41 challengers in the program get money, assistance and expertise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Figures aren't available for 2008, but in 2006, the committee targeted 56 races and raised nearly $22.6 million for an average of $404,000 per campaign.
Doherty's opponent, McCaul, is one of the wealthiest members of Congress: His wife is an heiress to Clear Channel Communications. He was elected in the 2004 redistricting that cost six U.S. House Democrats their seats.
"At a very basic level, the public realizes when a congressman isn't following their interests," said Doherty, a Houston lawyer who has slammed McCaul in a TV ad for being a multimillionaire. "It's pandering to that wealth that's been his touchstone in Congress."
Asked whether he, too, were rich, he said, "Compared to Michael McCaul, I'm not."
McCaul's low profile and strong support of President Bush's policies have cost him support, especially in the liberal eastern part of his district. The Austin American-Statesman endorsed Doherty on Oct. 21, saying "McCaul hasn't given voters a reason to support him for another term and Doherty offers a viable alternative."
Doherty and McCaul are not expected to debate, although the former TV judge says he will meet his congressional opponent "anytime, anyplace, anywhere."
McCaul spokesman Mike Rosen is not worried. "We're confident," he said. "We're less than two weeks out, we have a message, and the congressman has a record that resonates with the district." He also said McCaul's schedule, with the bailout legislation and the response to Hurricane Ike, made it difficult to schedule a debate.
In the 7th District, home to former President George H.W. Bush, who once held the seat, Democrat Skelly holds a fundraising advantage. According to opensecrets.org, the most recent Federal Election Commission report shows that Skelly has raised $2.65 million to Culberson's $1.38 million.
"I understand the energy business, the financial-industries business and the green business," said Skelly, explaining his appeal. "I'm a centrist."
One issue that Skelly has taken head-on would appear to be Culberson's strength: earmarks. Culberson is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which doles out annual funds, often directing specific funds for pet projects, called earmarking.
"We should not have earmarks," Skelly said. "We should eliminate them."
Skelly has also criticized Culberson for not supporting light rail, a major issue for Houston commuters. The candidates do not have a debate scheduled, though Skelly says he is eager to have one.
"My constituents approve of the work I'm doing to strengthen our economy while protecting taxpayers and know that they can count on my record as a proven fiscal conservative," Culberson said in a recent news release.