HOUSTON -- At a campaign stop last week, congressional candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs asked a group of women who own businesses to vote for her twice in November: once in a special election to fill the unexpired term of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and again in the general election as the Republican write-in candidate running for the full two-year term.
The women, meeting for breakfast in a hotel banquet room, looked up from their scrambled eggs as Sekula-Gibbs launched into a jingle to drive home the point: "Vote twice for Shelley," she sang to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel." "Special and then write her in."
The candidate motioned for them to join her in song, and most did, a few clapping in time. "It's corny, but corny is good," Sekula-Gibbs said.
As campaign appearances go, the early morning singalong may not have been routine, but little about the protracted race to replace the beleaguered DeLay has been ordinary.
DeLay, who dominated his district for 22 years, won the Republican primary in March even as his legal troubles mounted and popularity declined. The following month, he announced his intention to resign from Congress and move to Virginia. Texas Republicans tried to choose his replacement, saying an out-of-state resident can't appear on the Texas ballot.
Texas Democrats, eager to keep the politically damaged DeLay on the ticket, sued to stop the GOP, arguing that he was an eligible candidate under state law and the U.S. Constitution. On Aug. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. A week later, at DeLay's request, the Texas secretary of state removed his name from the ballot.
With no Republican candidate listed on the November ticket against Democrat Nick Lampson, GOP leaders scrambled to save the seat by naming a last-minute write-in candidate -- Houston City Councilwoman Sekula-Gibbs, a dermatologist who practices in the suburbs.
"The whole thing is crazy," said Judith Blanchard, a lawyer at the women's breakfast. "The Republican Party tried to do an end run around the law, and it backfired."
Blanchard supports Lampson, a four-term congressman unseated after his district was redrawn under a plan pushed through by DeLay in 2003.
"Republicans have thrown one seat away out of sheer stupidity with the whole DeLay fiasco," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
Four write-in candidates have won House seats in the past 75 years, said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. "It's extraordinarily difficult to organize and carry off. People go into a voting booth with very little information and often vote a straight ticket. For someone to go in and figure out how to do a write-in vote, what are the odds?" he said.
Sabato agreed. "Can you imagine entering that long, hyphenated name on a type pad? It's going to be a major hassle and people aren't going to do it," he said. "This is Lampson's seat. It is literally the only Republican seat that we are firmly putting in the Democratic column at this point."
The sprawling 22nd Congressional District, which is shaped like a bow tie, covers parts of four counties in and around Houston: Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris and Brazoria. Most residents will vote electronically. To vote for a write-in candidate, voters turn a dial that highlights individual letters, then enter each letter of the name.
Misspellings won't disqualify a vote if election officials can determine voter intent, said David Beirne, a spokesman for the Harris County clerk's office. Voters who mark a straight Republican ticket will not be voting for Sekula-Gibbs, he said, because her name isn't on the ballot.
"This is a very educated district. People will get it," Sekula-Gibbs said. She may be the late-starting write-in candidate, but "people know who I am."
It's not clear whether Republicans nationally will financially back Sekula-Gibbs, Sabato said. In such a bizarre, lopsided race, "it'll take a lot of money to win, money they need in other districts," he said.
Lampson campaign manager Mike Malaise said he's not assuming the election is over. "This is a tough district any way you look at it. We're not taking any chances. We're going to use our resources and spend everything necessary to win," he said.
Since DeLay dropped out of the race, Lampson has won support from business leaders once wary of crossing the powerful congressman, Malaise said. "There have been some people locally that have previously said, `I really like you Nick, but DeLay has threatened me or made it clear there would some sort of retribution for supporting you.' Now that he's out of the race, we've picked up their support."
Lianne Hart writes for the Los Angeles Times.