By Karen Tumulty
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 9:08 PM
MCGREGOR, TEX. - It's tough these days for Democratic incumbents all over, but nowhere more so than here, where Rep. Chet Edwards is - once again - fighting for his political life.
Of all the House Democrats running for reelection this year, none represents a more deeply red district than this one. It is ranked the 19th most heavily Republican in the country by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Among Edwards's constituents is former President George W. Bush, who is registered to vote at his Crawford ranch.
Conservative Democrats used to be the norm in Texas, but Edwards finds himself one of the last of a most endangered species.
Over two decades in the House, Edwards has been able to survive by carefully tending to the moods and the desires of the conservative voters back home.
Edwards has frequently broken with his party on high-profile votes, including opposing such signature Obama administration initiatives as the health-care overhaul and the cap-and-trade climate bills. He boasts of his endorsement by the National Rifle Association and his recent "guardian of small business" award from the National Federation of Independent Business.
Just as important, Edwards has deftly maneuvered the system in Washington, regardless of which party was in power. As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, he has brought plenty of money back to central Texas, being particularly attentive to veterans programs as chairman of the military construction and veterans affairs subcommittee. In 2003, when the Bush administration targeted the Waco Veterans Affairs hospital for closure, for instance, Edwards and the state's two Republican senators united to stop it.
This year, however, a long record of being good at your job is not necessarily an asset.
"The anger is stronger this year than before - similar to 1994," Edwards said in an interview, as he prepared to march in a Founders' Day parade in this small town just west of Waco. "There's a lot of frustration with hyperpartisanship in Washington. There's a sense that government tried to overreach."
Many of the most endangered Democrats this year are relative newcomers to Washington, elected to the 55 House seats that the party picked up in the 2006 and 2008 elections. But polls suggest that some veteran lawmakers may be swept away as well.
In addition to Edwards, Democrats are nervous about the seats of such longtime House members as 17-term House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton in Missouri; 14-term House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt in South Carolina, and nine-term Rep. Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota.
The latest GOP poll has Edwards's opponent, retired oil and gas executive Bill Flores, running nearly 20 points ahead in a campaign that is turning more bitter with each round of attack ads. Edwards has declined to release his own poll numbers, but insisted that the race remains winnable.
The anti-incumbent mood is not the only thing going against Edwards.
For starters, the demographics of his district are far less friendly to Democrats than they used to be. In 2003, he was among those targeted in House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's infamous redistricting effort. Four Texas Democrats went down to defeat in the next election, one retired, and one switched parties.
Edwards survived. "He kind of beat the odds," said his former congressional colleague Martin Frost, who didn't. "Of the districts that were previously represented by moderate or conservative Democrats, he's the only one left."
But then came the burst of publicity for Edwards in 2008, when he was one of six finalists to be Barack Obama's running mate. That would be bad enough, given the president's standing in this part of Texas. But making matters worse is that he made Obama's short list largely on the recommendation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who may be even more unpopular than Obama here.
"He's a great guy," Hood County Republican Chairman Randy Shelton said of Edwards. "When he started voting with a San Francisco liberal, that's what's hurting him."
One of Flores's television ads strikes a similar note: "Our congressman has changed."
Indeed, Flores, a first-time candidate who is running on his business experience, rarely misses an opportunity to tie Edwards to the national Democratic leaders.
He has put up 10 billboards across the district that feature a photo of Edwards speaking behind a podium emblazoned with the now-iconic Obama '08 campaign logo, and quoting the congressman as declaring that Obama has "the solid judgment our citizens want."
And the surest applause line in Flores's campaign speeches is his declaration that he would never vote for Pelosi as speaker - though he's not willing to commit to supporting House Republican leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) either. Nor has he had time, he said, to read the House GOP's recently unveiled campaign manifesto, the "Pledge to America."
That Flores would want to keep his distance from Washington is understandable, given how much of his case against Edwards rests on voters' disgust with the federal government and those who lead it.
"My opponent would have people believe my last name is Edwards-Obama-Pelosi," Edwards said. "That's the strength of their attack, and that's also the weakness, because it's not true."
A few weeks ago, Edwards began running an ad stressing the number of times he has "stood up to" Obama and Pelosi. He has also said that if Democrats hold the House, he is not committed to voting for Pelosi for speaker.
Edwards does have some things going for him as well, including a better than five-to-one cash advantage over Flores, according to Federal Election Commission reports. And after two decades in Congress, he has also built a strong base of loyalty in the district, particularly with its veterans.
"I believe we are going to pull it over because of his record," said Ray Salazar, a 62-year-old retiree who served in Vietnam. "We were very, very close to losing a great medical facility." If the VA hospital had been closed, Salazar said, he would have had to have driven at least 40 miles for care.
So for the first time in his life, Salazar is volunteering in a political campaign.
Edwards noted that this year is not the first time Republicans have written his political epitaph. "These races are going to be won or lost on a district-by-district basis," he said. "What I have to do is show that I'm one of us."