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WASHINGTON —From the day Col. Edward House moved from Austin in 1913 to serve as President Woodrow Wilson's right-hand man in Washington, Texas has had inordinate clout in the nation's capital.
The state's list of political powerhouses has spanned the century, the political spectrum and all three branches of government.
“Texas had a tremendous run,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “There are periods in American history when Texas literally ran Washington.”
Among those who did the running then were House Speakers John Nance “Cactus Jack” Garner, Sam Rayburn and Jim Wright; Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson; House Majority Leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay; Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark; President Johnson; and both Presidents Bush.
That was then.
This is now: No president. No vice president. No House speaker. No majority leader. Just one second-tier congressional committee chairman. A single member of the Obama Cabinet and no member of the senior White House staff. Zero Supreme Court justices.
“These are tough times to be a Texan in Washington,” laments Houstonian Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser in the Clinton White House.
How low can Texas' clout go?
“It's about as low as it's ever been,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. “Texas is a distant presence in Barack Obama's Washington.”
But it's not just a power failure. An anti-Texas backlash is evident from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, a reaction to the cowboy bravado of the Bush years, the brash “bring 'em on” ethos that many national politicians linked to the 43rd president's home state.
Add to that Texas Gov. Rick Perry's musings about secession, the sharp anti-Washington rhetoric emanating from the other side of the Red River — and you have a toxic political brew.
“No mistake about it, there is a lot of Texas fatigue in Washington right now,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who made his first political splash as a congressional aide on Capitol Hill.
But the biggest problem Texas faces in Washington isn't personal hostility. It's political reality.
“We are still a one-party Republican state,” Ellis said, “at a time when the Democrats happen to be in control of Washington.”
Still, while Texas hands may not be on the levers of power, there are dozens of Texans who exert significant influence on the banks of the Potomac. Through interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists, current and past administration officials, academics, and a bipartisan group of political professionals, the Houston Chronicle has identified 10 Texans who wield significant clout in the new Democratic world of Washington.
Some are Democrats. Some are Republicans. Some aren't even in politics: Septime Webre is the acclaimed artistic director of the Washington Ballet. But these Texas expats have made a mark on the nation's capital or the nation's political discourse.
“Texans have a nose for power,” said Jillson. “They can smell it and get close to it. Even when their own star gets burned out, they're not lost.”
Nowhere does Texas have more impact than on the lobbying community known as the K Street Corridor. And no lobbyist has deeper Democratic ties than Ben Barnes, the peripatetic septuagenarian and one-time Boy Wonder who became Texas House speaker at age 26 in 1965.
How does he do it? Money and connections. Having survived political scandal and financial bankruptcy, Barnes has maintained close friendships with key players like Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV. He's also is one of the most prolific Democratic fundraisers in the nation.
“I find myself knowing these people and wanting to help them,” Barnes said, “because I still have a real fire in my belly for politics.”
Help them he did.
Last year, the Austinite led all U.S. lobbyists in “bundling” campaign contributions — which means collecting donations from friends, family and associates and delivering them to a single recipient, a study by the Center for Public Integrity found.
Other Texans are go-to lobbyists for specific industries. Take, for example, James C. Langdon Jr., a respected energy specialist at the blue-chip law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Unlike Barnes, Langdon and other Texas lobbyists can open doors in Washington because their firms have contributed liberally to candidates from both parties.
“K Street has turned into a bipartisan effort for the most part,” said Langdon, son of a Democratic Texas railroad commissioner and a top fundraiser for former President George W. Bush. “… To get things done, you have to have the full spectrum of politics represented within a firm.”
Langdon, appointed chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board in 2005 by his fellow Texan, is a rare refugee from the Bush administration still playing a key role. Another is Karl Rove, the longtime White House political guru who has remained an important figure in Republican politics through his appearances as a pundit on Fox News, a columnist at the Wall Street Journal and a social networking superstar who tweets his way across America.
He is also working with former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie to build a network of conservative groups rivaling the Republican National Committee in influence.
Inside the White House, where Rove once roamed, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor and Texas secretary of state, is the solitary Cabinet-level Texan.
On Democrat-dominated Capitol Hill, Texas' lopsided Republican delegation is at a disadvantage. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, the only House Appropriations Subcommittee chair from the state, has become a bipartisan champion for Texas projects, from military construction to medical research.
Edwards has worked closely with Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Dallas, who managed to help Texas win $1.2 billion in federal earmarks last year despite serving in the minority party. The senior senator says her goal is to “work behind the scenes and put together coalitions and alliances to get things done in a very tough legislative atmosphere.”
Two other Texas lawmakers have become influential players because of their national, not state, portfolios. Sen. John Cornyn of San Antonio heads up the GOP's Senate campaign committee, while Dallas Rep. Pete Sessions directs the House Republicans' committee.
“Sen. Cornyn is building a power base that will likely serve Texas in the long run,” said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M.
While these Texans are inside players on Capitol Hill, two others have built national reputations in the Capitol as political outsiders. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson, leads a national libertarian movement dedicated to smaller government, lower taxes, military non-intervention and personal liberty. And former House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Lewisville has made a political comeback as the head of FreedomWorks, the Washington-based political group that has mobilized tea party activists across America. Both men have used social media tools and Internet savvy to build passionate national followings.
“Strong conservatives like Dick Armey and Ron Paul can exert much influence through these social media channels,” said Carleton College's Schier. “The fact that they are among the most influential Texans in Washington tells you how far Texas is from Democratic circles of leadership in our nation's capital.”
Katie Brandenburg and Tom McIlroy contributed to this report.