Sitting in the backseat of a Suburban, heading north on Interstate 35 to a campaign stop just south of Fort Worth, Bill Flores ponders his newest endeavor: "This is the last thing I ever thought I would be doing in this stage of my life."
As he describes the day in 2009 when he decided to challenge veteran U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, Flores talks about the American dream and how the world he sees now barely resembles the one he grew up in — the one that provided the opportunity for a poor farm boy from the Panhandle to work hard, study hard and climb the ranks of the oil and gas industry.
Flores, 56 and now retired from his energy company, Phoenix Exploration, is only the latest in a line of Republicans to try to knock Edwards, 58, from his Congressional perch in the country’s most Republican district held by a Democrat. But this time, he swears, it’s different. And as the campaign enters its final month, the national pundit class agrees with him. Though Edwards has earned a reputation as an escape artist for holding onto his district since 2004 — when former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, redrew it specifically to ensure his defeat — it’s clear that he'll face his toughest act yet in what is not only an incumbent-slaying year but also a year in which when “D” next to a candidate's name seems like a scarlet letter. In 2004, Edwards beat former state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, by hammering her over her opposition in the Legislature to the Children's Health Insurance Program. In 2006, he painted opponent Van Taylor as a carpetbagger who had just moved into the district to get into politics. In 2008, Republican Rob Curnock — who had run and lost Republican primaries for the seat in 2000 and 2002 — failed to attract the financial backing of the national party. In a strong year for Democrats, Edwards beat him by 7 points.
This year, Flores hasn’t had to try hard to engage the national GOP. Among the most watched Congressional races in the country, the CD-17 battle is one of a handful the party needs to win to regain control of the House. The American Future Fund, a conservative advocacy group with ties to influential Republican operatives, and the National Republican Congressional Committee have poured money into the race with television ads that play up Edwards’ connection to the Democratic leaders in Washington. The NRCC has also invested at least $16,000 to help with internal polling, according to campaign finance records.
Flores sees several ways in which his race is dissimilar from those that preceded it. He's new to politics, a definite advantage at a time when, he notes, “incumbency behind anyone's name is baggage.” This time around, he says, voters are most worried about national issues — not the local issues that could play to the advantage of Edwards, a powerful lawmaker known for bringing earmarks home to the district. Flores hopes to harness a “very agitated, very concerned electorate” that’s eager for a leader with business experience to guide them through dark economic times.
The refrains of Flores' stump speech reflect his belief that what’s weighing on voters’ minds are economic troubles and that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama — whom Edwards supported in 2008 — are to blame. In Waco recently, Flores promised a group of factory workers that he would get the “boot of the federal government off the neck of the private sector.” He praised the virtues of a robust economy and emphasized his conviction that the “best single social service invention is the private sector job.” Time and again, he portrayed himself a candidate who knows how to meet a payroll and create prized private sector jobs.
But while Flores’ background as a political newcomer may appeal to some voters, it could have also caused a few rookie mistakes. One of them netted Edwards a TV ad that focuses on a remark Flores made in a runoff debate that Edwards cast as proposing the privatization of the Veterans Health Administration. Flores says he actually said that he supports allowing veterans to use government benefits to seek health care in the private sector, not dismantling the whole VA system.
He also gave Edwards ammunition in June, when he criticized the incumbent's involvement in efforts to keep Baylor in the Big 12 football conference. “The last thing you want is a candidate for federal office or an existing federal officeholder getting involved in college athletics,” Flores told the Waco Herald-Tribune. After Edwards blasted him for being “out of touch with the district” in a press release, Flores changed his tune, saying, "It was absolutely appropriate for city, county, university and elected officials to rally supporters to protect Baylor."
Flores says he would do some things differently. “You always have a miscue here or there,” he says. “Sometimes I haven't been as clear and concise in delivering a message as I could have been or said it in a way that could not have been twisted.” But despite what he says has been an overwhelmingly negative campaign by Edwards, he says doesn’t think voters will bite. “He can beat up on me until the cows come home,” Flores says. “But it doesn't overlook the fact that since he put Pelosi into the speaker's chair, we've lost 7 million jobs.”
For Flores, the fact that his race has implications for Republicans across the country is “interesting but irrelevant.” He says he has no plans for a political career after Congress. He wants to get to Washington and back in “four terms or less.” And one more thing: He’s coming home every weekend.
“People in Bryan are going to see me in my flip-flops and shorts on Saturday at Lowe's hardware, and it's not going to be a pretty sight,” he says. “And on Sunday in my Sunday school class.”