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Rep. Chet Edwards' seat in Texas emerging as must-win for GOP

By Aaron Blake

Texas Rep. Chet Edwards may be the only Democrat running for office this year to tie his opponent to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and tie himself to George W. Bush.

Of his opponent's flip-flops on earmarks: they "make John Kerry look like the Rock of Gibraltar."

Of his vote for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout, Edwards told The Fix: "I crossed party lines to support President Bush."

When it comes to the usual rules of campaigning, they often haven't applied to the Texas Democrat. His district is both home to Bush and (arguably) the most conservative of 257 seats held by Democrats. And every election, it seems, Edwards has won in spite of it.

If Republicans are to retake the House this year, they're probably going to have to do something they haven't been able to do for 20 years: beat the congressman from Waco.

For a national party that is struggling to fund all of its competitive races, it will need the national environment to help deliver districts like Edwards'.

Republicans have tried. (Oh, how they have tried.) But every election cycle, Edwards seems to have an answer. He won with 55 percent or less in all but one election in the 2000s, and even when he was targeted by GOP leaders in 2006, he ran up his vote total to 58 percent in 2006.

This cycle, Republicans have got a wealthy self-funding businessman running against Edwards in the form Bill Flores. They've also got plenty to work with from Edwards' voting record. Despite voting against Democratic initiatives like the healthcare bill, cap-and-trade and the recent financial regulatory reform bill, Edwards voted in favor of two of the big supposed campaign-killers: the financial bailout and the stimulus.

Flores has made those votes cornerstones of his campaign.

"Chet Edwards has never met a bailout he did not support," Flores said in a statement.

Edwards says both were the right votes to take. He said the bailout did its job by staving off \ a second Great Depression, and that the money put into his district by the stimulus has had many benefits.

Part of the reason Edwards thinks he can survive such votes is the independence he has established over the years. He is routinely ranked among the most centrist members of the House and has built key inroads with the vast veterans community in his district.

To that end, the House recently passed Edwards's bill to fund military construction and the Veterans Affairs department. The appropriations subcommittee chaired by the congressman has in recent years significantly increased the number of doctors, nurses and claims processors working on veterans' issues, and it's all sure to be in the Edwards camp's talking points over the next three months.

Edwards proudly proclaims his work on veterans issues as perhaps the main reason he has so routinely beaten the expectations created by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which he proudly proclaims is "0-for-10 in predicting my demise."

Part of the reason Republicans think this year is different is a GOP-sponsored poll from earlier this year showing Flores leading the race 53 percent to 41 percent. Edwards maintained good personal numbers - 53 percent favorable and 38 percent unfavorable - but the national environment appears to be weighing him down.

He concedes the point, but says he's got something else working in his favor this year: the ballot. There's no presidential race on it, and Democrats have a very capable governor candidate in former Houston Mayor Bill White.

That means Edwards will probably confront a little friendlier electorate than the one that gave a GOP presidential candidate 70 percent in 2004 and 67 percent in 2008.

"The plus is that it's a non-presidential year; the minus is there's a lot of anger at Washington," Edwards said.

Edwards insists that his own polling shows a more competitive race, but he says his campaign has a policy of not releasing internal survey data.

He said it's not his toughest race - that would be the 2004 race after former House Speaker Tom DeLay's (R-Texas) mid-cycle redistricting gambit absorbed some heavily Republican areas into Edwards's district. Since then, it has given both Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) the biggest margins of any district held by a Democrat.

"I'm in a very similar position as I was in previous cycles," Edwards said. "I relish tough campaigns."

By Aaron Blake  |  August 9, 2010; 4:43 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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