Had he won on Tuesday night, it would have solidified his reputation as a political miracle worker. Instead, U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, lost the seat he's held for two decades to Republican Bill Flores, a political newcomer, by a 25-point margin.
Edwards' resounding defeat was only one of the night’s many hits to the Democratic Party’s solar plexus. The GOP dislodged 28-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, from the 27th and reclaimed the 23rd from U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio. In the Legislature, Republicans knocked off another senior Waco Democrat, state Rep. Jim Dunnam — along with 21 of his colleagues. The loss of Edwards, the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, though, is likely to engender the most speculation as Democrats pick up the pieces after Nov. 2.
What's next for Chet Edwards? And to a lesser extent, what's next for Waco, a city that enters a redistricting year without three of its legislative champions (Edwards, Dunnam and state Sen. Kip Averitt, who resigned earlier this year)?
Everyone contacted for this story says it’s too early to answer the first question. But each points out that few, if any, Democrats in the state match Edwards’ native political talent, fundraising prowess and years of experience. And there’s no ignoring that Edwards is at the top of “most people’s lists for whatever he chooses to do,” as Democratic strategist Ed Martin phrases it. That means there’ll be plenty of talk about a future statewide run from Edwards — something that could pit him against former Comptroller John Sharp or a sadder but wiser Bill White in a 2012 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, should Kay Bailey Hutchison decide not to seek another term.
"He's a formidable campaigner, one of the best I've ever seen,” says Republican David Sibley, who represented Waco in the state Senate for 11 years. “This is [the GOP’s] fourth or fifth try in that district, and they just now got him.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Edwards said he doesn’t know what his future will bring, though he wouldn’t rule out another try at politics. “I think my wife and sons would strangle me if I even talked about another race at this point,” he said.
Another natural second act for Edwards may be a cabinet or regulatory agency appointment in the Obama administration. Edwards has a good relationship with the president: As Flores pointed out relentlessly during the campaign, Edwards was short-listed as a candidate for vice president in 2008. And as Buddy Jones, the HillCo Partners founder who lost a state senate race to him in 1982, notes, he fits the profile of the “good conservative Democrats” that the Obama administration will be looking for to bridge the gap between the parties in the newly polarized Congress. (Edwards said he has had no conversations with the White House about potential appointments.)
Jones can testify first-hand to Edwards’ skills on the campaign trail but raises the prospect that the congressman may lose his appetite for politics after his recent defeat. “Having suffered a defeat at his hands,” Jones says, “I can say that once I lost a race, I kind of got cured of running for office again."
That, of course, leaves the private sector. Edwards has an MBA from Harvard University and could leverage the same interpersonal skills that served him well in politics in the lobby or the business world. “Chet's been one of those rare public officials that’s spent his entire adult life in electoral politics and not made a nickel," says longtime ally Lyndon Olson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden during the Clinton administration. "It may be a season in his life that he gets into business and try to make some money. And he has a family that he's extremely devoted to, so he probably wants to spend some time with them.”
Whatever Edwards’ future holds, the difficult battle to keep McLennan County intact without Edwards when the Legislature redraws district lines will fall to Waco’s current state representatives, newly elected Marva Beck and veteran Charles "Doc" Anderson, and to newly elected state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. “If you’re in the center of the state like Waco is, people come at you from all four directions,” Sibley says, adding, “I think we're in dire straits. I really do. We're going to get cut up like boarding house pie."
When asked about Waco’s future after he leaves office, Edwards sounded an optimistic note: “The district did well before I was elected to Congress, and I hope and wish it will do well after I leave."