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The Bellwether

As U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, goes, so go the Democrats? In a hyper-partisan year, with control of the U.S. House up for grabs, all eyes are on Congressional District 17, the most Republican district in America held by a Democrat. Pundits think Edwards may finally get beat: Were he to survive, a D.C. analyst says, it would be "one of the greatest Houdini acts ever seen in Texas politics." But the 10-term incumbent has seen awful political environments before. “The Washington Generals have a better record against Harlem Globetrotters than the [National Republican Congressional Committee] does in predicting my defeat," he says.

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On a Friday afternoon in late August, a handful of seniors — helmet-haired ladies and gentlemen with the upright bearing of former soldiers — gather in a small room at a Holiday Inn along Highway 79 in the Central Texas town of Hearne.

Standing before them, U.S. Rep Chet Edwards, D-Waco, glides into his speech. “Let me share with you a story,” he says on the last day of his “Vets for Chet” tour. He talks about the father who lost five sons in World War II, the marine who lost his life disabling an IED in Iraq, the man who was on the USS Tennessee during Pearl Harbor.

He’s in Robertson County, his 11th in five days. Hearne, his second-to-last stop, is the 17th town he’s visited. The stories are the standard fare of the stump; Edwards has repeated them many times in 20 years in the U.S. House. But as he rolls through his speech — now it’s the young widows at Fort Hood clutching babies their fathers will never see — it quickly becomes clear that the Waco Democrat who says he “relishes” tough campaigns is in his element. He’s spent August campaigning day and night, six days a week, traversing his Central Texas district that stretches across Waco from Burleson to Bryan-College Station.

He’d better be: He’s got just two months left to save his seat from the clutches of Republican challenger Bill Flores in what has become a national battleground for the GOP. Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of finally ousting Edwards from a seat in a district he’s represented since 1990, a district that — as the most Republican in America held by a Democrat — they believe is rightfully theirs. In this hyper-partisan year, they may finally succeed in taking it.  

Flores, a retired oil-and-gas executive from Bryan, has deep pockets and the backing of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is counting on his victory as part of its effort to reclaim the majority in the U.S. House; according to campaign finance reports, it has already sunk at least $16,000 into the race. Edwards’ seat is among the 57 the GOP must gain nationally, and it’s one of 40 that the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report rates as a “toss-up.”

As Flores' campaign emphasizes, he is a businessman, with those real-world, job-creating credentials the GOP is throwing as red meat to an electorate in economic straits. What’s more, he has party momentum on his side. A recent Gallup poll shows the advantages Republicans enjoy heading into the midterm elections have hit historic highs; meanwhile, Barack Obama faces some of the lowest job approval ratings of his administration. The atmospherics are such that David Wasserman, Cook’s House analyst, says that it would be “one of the greatest Houdini acts ever seen in Texas politics” for Edwards to escape this year with his seat.

Edwards has a ready quip for his supposed underdog status: “The Washington Generals have a better record against Harlem Globetrotters than the NRCC does in predicting my defeat. At least the Generals have won one game.” He refers to the past 10 election cycles, where each time, he says, the Republicans have deployed campaign money and manpower attempting — unsuccessfully — to bring him down.

DeLayed effect

But the 17th isn’t the same district that elected Edwards for the first time in 1990. It was among the six districts that former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, reengineered in 2004 with the specific intent of toppling House Democrats. None of the past years, however, were as bad nationally for Democrats as 2010. That’s why Wasserman says it’s different this time: “Yes, Chet Edwards has survived awful political years, such as 1994. And yes, Chet Edwards has survived in a tough district since 2004. But he’s never survived a year with this tough of a climate in this tough district.”

By catering to veterans, Edwards is following a strategy that Wasserman says vulnerable Democrats across the country have adopted: draping themselves in the flag. That is, by emphasizing their bona fides as champions of national defense, Democrats hope to make their elections referendums on their support for the troops rather than the Obama administration. The risk there, Wasserman says, is that voters may be more focused on the economy, and Democrats could sound like they’re changing the subject. 

Still, the plight of veterans is a natural talking point for a congressman who chairs the Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee and represented Fort Hood, one of the largest military installations in the world, until 2005. Edwards also counts as a political mentor the legendary veterans advocate Olin “Tiger” Teague, who represented Texas’ 5th District from 1946 to 1972. And he hasn’t neglected the topic of jobs, either — Edwards has recently attacked Flores for a proposal to eliminate federal loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, something that he claims would cost the district more than 5,000 construction jobs by killing a local power plant expansion. 

Edwards says he has kept his seat for so long because voters have appreciated his independent thinking. “I don't think either party has a monopoly on wisdom,” he says, “My philosophy has never changed: When a president and congressional leader are doing is right for our country, I vote with them. When I think what they are doing is not right, I respectfully disagree."

Bumper stickers over billboards

Back at the Hearne Holiday Inn, Edwards approaches the part of the speech in which a candidate usually asks for money. He talks about how tough of a fight it’s going to be. He says the district’s veterans need a “champion, not a newcomer” in Washington. But instead of fundraising, he asks them to put signs in their yards or bumper stickers on their cars. “I’ll take that bumper sticker over the biggest billboard,” he assures them, “Because that is your personal testimony.”

The billboard may be a reference to the ones his opponent has put up around the district, which show Edwards stumping for the president, standing behind a podium with an “Obama ’08” sign on the front. Flores’ campaign has taken every opportunity to link Edwards intimately with the current administration — despite his prominent breaks with Democrats on health care reform, cap and trade, and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The site, paid for by the Flores campaign, informs voters how they can stop Edwards-Obama-Pelosi. At least one poll from the Flores camp — no independent polls have been conducted in the race — has shown it’s working: in May, Flores held a 53-41 percent lead over Edwards. 

The endangered congressman remains buoyant, however. His campaign, which has a policy of not releasing poll numbers, has conducted its own surveys, which show different results, he says. And then there's his past experience: “I've had half a dozen opponents do partisan internal polls that show their candidates ahead of me, and on Election Day we've beat every single one of them,” he says. “People in our district know me, and know I’ve worked hard.”

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Congress Politics 2010 elections Bill Flores Texas congressional delegation