Republicans Bill Flores and Rob Curnock both think they’ve got what it takes to oust U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, the Waco Democrat who’s represented the conservative-leaning 17th congressional district for nearly two decades. But first they’ve got to do battle in an April 13 runoff.
Flores, a retired Bryan oil and gas executive and generous Texas A&M alumnus, has the financial lead: Going into the primary, he raised more than twice as much money as Curnock and spent four times as much. He led the five-way race with 33 percent of the vote to Curnock’s 29 percent and has pledged to pour his own fortune — “whatever it takes” — into winning the runoff and the November general election.
Curnock has what some consider a geographic edge. In a long diagonal district that stretches from the Fort Worth suburbs to Bryan/College Station, the video production company owner calls centrally located Waco home. He also has name recognition from his previous runs for Edwards’ seat — in 2000 and 2002, when he didn’t make it out of the Republican primaries; and in 2008, when he ran unopposed in the GOP primary and lost to Edwards in the general election by 8 percentage points.
Despite the three losses, Curnock argues the previous campaigns give him an edge. He says he went up against Edwards in 2008 with no support from the Republican Party, either nationally or in Texas. He was outspent by $2 million but still came within striking distance of defeating the longtime incumbent. Because of that respectable showing and his persistence, he says, he has the assurance of Republican establishment support and funding in this year’s general election — and the experience to beat Edwards. “We’ve been there, done that, gotten the votes,” he says. “We feel we’re in the best position to finish the job that we started in 2008, when we came extremely close in a heavily Democratic year.”
Curnock concedes that Flores may have more money, but he says no one out-raises Edwards. “If you raise $4 million,” he says, “Chet will always have $4 million and one.” He hopes voters recognize his three decades of “fighting for conservative causes” within the district. And he says there’s “something to the argument” that the candidate challenging Edwards should be from Waco. “If [Republicans in Waco] are choosing between someone they don’t know and Chet Edwards, who they don’t agree with, they will stick with Chet because he’s the candidate they know, and he’s from their home,” Curnock says. “They know me and agree with me.”
Flores says his inspiration to run stems from his disappointment with big government and with Edwards’ voting record. He says it makes no sense that the district — which voted strongly Republican in each of the last two presidential elections — would choose a Democrat if offered a qualified GOP challenger. Flores has an interesting voting record of his own: In the 2008 primary, when Curnock was running unopposed in the Republican primary, Flores voted in the Democratic primary — casting his ballot against Barack Obama. His campaign manager, Matt Mackowiak, says Flores feared Obama would "take our country far to the left." But he says he doesn't know whether Flores voted for Hillary Clinton or one of the other Democratic candidates still on the ballot. On Election Day 2008, Flores phone-banked for Republican Sen. John McCain. But he got stuck in business meetings in Houston and was unable to leave in time to cast a ballot, Mackowiak says.
Flores says his campaign will focus on limited government, economic prosperity and conservative social values. “This is a very pro-life district, a very conservative district,” says Flores, who’s been endorsed by Texas Right To Life. "There won't be a vote of mine that doesn't align with what's best for those national priorities."
He says the way to defeat Edwards is with prayers, volunteers and money. And he says he’s got these bases covered, through his credentials creating jobs and balancing budgets in the private sector, and his experience with fundraising, contributions and volunteerism in the philanthropic world. “That experience I have exceeds that of Rob and Chet combined,” says Flores, who says he has spent $750,000 so far on the race, including $450,000 of his own money.
Flores has been generous to other candidates, too. According to campaign finance reports, he and his wife gave a combined $57,000 to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s failed gubernatorial bid. Flores’ campaign says he’s now squarely behind Gov. Rick Perry, a fellow Texas A&M alumnus, and has contributed $1,000 to his campaign since the primary. But Flores also has a history of speaking out against Texas A&M’s Perry-appointed leadership. Last summer, he publicly rebuked the board of regents over the controversy surrounding the hiring, and later resignation, of the university’s first female and first Hispanic president, Elsa Murano. "First and foremost, Bill is a conservative, and he believes Texans deserve a conservative governor," Mackowiak says.
Curnock brings a stacked conservative agenda to the race: strict adherence to the Constitution, cutting the national debt, promoting pro-life values and “winning the war on terror no matter where we fight it.” Flores says he shares those goals. But his platform also focuses on term limits for elected officials and their staffs, and on eliminating the congressional pension system. He wants lawmakers to face pay cuts if they can’t balance the budget and thinks any program they pass, including health care, should apply to all federal employees except the military. “It’s not meant to be punitive for Congress,” Flores says, “but to make sure people sitting around the dinner table at night know people in Washington are feeling the same thing they are.”