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The Race of His Life

Democrat Chet Edwards faces his toughest test yet.
by Published on
photo courtesy Center for American Progress Action Fund
Chet Edwards

Chet Edwards should have been voted from office years ago. For most of his two decades in Congress, the Waco Democrat has represented a district that’s more than 60 percent Republican. Every two years, the GOP comes after him with one well-funded candidate after another: from experienced legislators to political novices, from business people to an Iraq War vet. Edwards has trumped them all. In 2004, he was one of five Democratic congressmen targeted by Tom DeLay’s redistricting scheme and the only one to survive. So Edwards is no stranger to winning in a conservative district.

This year he faces his toughest race yet. He’s running against another promising, well-funded Republican candidate—this time, it’s a retired oil and gas executive named Bill Flores. What complicates Edwards’ reelection bid in 2010 is an angry electorate that’s not only anti-incumbent, but also favoring Republicans, according to polls. Those two trends may prove too much for Edwards, a 19-year incumbent Democrat. In fact, the GOP seems downright giddy at the prospect of finally knocking off Edwards. Steve Munisteri, chair of the Texas Republican Party, recently told National Review that of all the Democrats on the ballot in Texas, the one he believes most likely to lose is Edwards. “I’m very, very optimistic,” he told the magazine.

It can be difficult to get a read on congressional races. There’s been no independent polling of the district recently.  The Flores campaign released an internal poll in September that showed its candidate ahead by 19 points (the Edwards campaign dismissed those results as biased). The respected Cook Political Report lists the race as a “toss up.” But Republicans have reason to be optimistic. Flores, after some initial stumbles, has proven a good candidate in his first run for office. He’s well funded: In the most recent campaign finance reports, released July 1, Flores reported raising $1.6 million (the national Republican Party is also spending heavily on his behalf). And he’s running a populist campaign advocating reduced government spending, job creation and repeal of the national health care bill—issues that Republicans believe will play well in Texas’ conservative 17th congressional district. He’s also running billboard and television ads trying to link Edwards to unpopular national Democrats like President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Of course, Edwards has been written off before, only to pull off stunning victories. None was more stunning than his 2004 campaign. DeLay, then the House Majority Leader, and his allies in the Texas Legislature spent most of 2003 redrawing Texas’ congressional district lines for maximum partisan advantage. They targeted five Democrats for defeat in the general election. Edwards saw the district he’d served for a dozen years warped beyond recognition. DeLay’s new map removed Fort Hood from Edwards’ district, and shifted his territory north toward the Fort Worth suburbs and east to include Bryan-College Station. The new 17th district was roughly 65 percent Republican and included then-President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford. It was perhaps the most conservative district in the country still represented by a Democrat. When Arlene Wohlgemuth, a conservative veteran of the Texas Legislature, filed to run for the newly redrawn seat, most pundits figured Edwards’ political career was over.

Edwards prevailed with charismatic campaigning that pitches him as an independent-minded centrist while portraying his opponent as a right-wing radical. That wasn’t hard with Wohlgemuth, who in 2003 authored harsh state budget cuts that eventually sliced hundreds of thousands of kids off Texas’ Children’s Health Insurance Program. (His campaigns in 2006 and 2008—aided by Democratic gains nationwide and weaker GOP challengers—weren’t as difficult.) Edwards constantly tells voters that party and ideological labels are less important than which candidate can best represent their communities. Edwards has gained a reputation as such a good campaigner that Pelosi even floated his name as a potential vice presidential nominee for Obama in 2008.

Edwards is taking a similar approach this year. He’s once again emphasizing his centrist bonafides. He voted against health care, financial reform and cap-and-trade. He’s pro-death penalty and has a reputation on Capitol Hill as a strong supporter of the military and the Veterans Administration. Edwards—who reported raising $2.6 million for the race in July—has tried to portray Flores as too radical for the district. His campaign has highlighted Flores’ previous support for eliminating the Department of Energy—a step that would cost Texas A&M University, which sits in the district, millions. Flores has called Edwards’ charges overblown. (Flores declined an interview request from Observer and refused to answer questions submitted in writing. Edwards also turned down repeated interview requests, citing scheduling conflicts.)

“I’m used to being a target,” Edwards told the Associated Press in early September. “This year there’s clearly an anti-Washington environment, and I share those frustrations. I’m sickened by the hyper-partisanship. But I’m working hard at the grass-roots level, letting my independent voting record speak for itself.”

In television ads, Edwards has attacked Flores, who spent 30 years as an executive in the Texas oil and gas industry, as being out of touch with working Texans. While the attacks haven’t lacked zest, Flores has been a difficult candidate to define. In 2004, Edwards’ two biggest advantages over Wohlgemuth were his seniority—he hammered Wohlgemuth on her lack of foreign policy experience during a time of war—and her ultra-conservative record in the Legislature. Edwards doesn’t have either of those advantages this year. He still can boast of seniority in Congress, though that seems a dangerous argument to take in an anti-incumbent election year. More problematic is Flores’ lack of a record. Unlike Wohlgemuth, the first-time candidate has never denied health care to kids. Flores—besides his comments about the Department of Energy—has given the Edwards camp little extremist material to work with.

Meanwhile, Flores hasn’t backed down from a tough race. His ads have tried to paint Edwards as a liberal Democrat, and he’s clearly trying to capitalize on voters’ anti-Washington anger. “Whereas in the past, concerns have revolved around local issues, this year the national issues have become the local issues,” Flores told National Review. The latest Flores television ad, released in mid-September, portrays Edwards as a one-time moderate turned Nancy Pelosi supporter. “Chet is silent about voting with Nancy Pelosi 96 percent of the time….Our congressman has changed. It’s time to change our congressman.”

Those lines of attack aren’t new, but they’re potentially more dangerous to Edwards this year. Polls have found the electorate in a throw-the-bums-out mood. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll reported that 60 percent of respondents thought the country was “seriously off on the wrong track.” For an incumbent Democrat in a conservative district—even one as skilled at retail politics as Chet Edwards—those numbers must be awfully worrying.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.