In a well-known scene in the film There Will Be Blood, oil prospector Daniel Plainview, played by a fervid Daniel Day-Lewis, points inquiringly at a plot of land on a map and, seemingly vexed, asks, “What’s this? Why don’t I own this?”
This year, as the GOP surveys the political landscape and maps out its plan to win back the House in November, a lot of Republicans are pointing at the Texas 17th congressional district and asking the very same questions. In fact, they have been asking those questions for nearly two decades.
Democratic congressman Chet Edwards represents one of the most conservative districts in the state of Texas, which, it is safe to say, makes it one of the most conservative districts in the entire country. George W. Bush, whose Crawford ranch is actually part of the district, won 70 percent of the vote in 2004. John McCain won 67 percent in 2008. It has a Cook Political Report rating of R+20, making it the most conservative district in the country not represented by a Republican.
Edwards’s appeal is easy to see. He is handsome and personable, and knows how to connect with rural voters. He has accumulated enormous political capital through his outspoken support for the military and veterans. “He’s of the district — he knows the district well and has been a good fit on the issues for many years,” says Sherri Greenberg, a lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a former member of the Texas House of Representatives.
Edwards doesn’t always vote like the average Democrat, though that should hardly come as a surprise. He voted against key party initiatives including health-care reform, cap-and-trade, and financial reform. “By any measure you use, he’s a moderate conservative,” says Isaac Wood, the House-race editor for Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter.
In the past, Edwards could rely on personal charm and an independent voting streak to get him reelected. Not this year. Residents of the 17th district are riled up like never before. Many are outraged at the direction the country has taken under the leadership of Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is particularly reviled among Edwards’s constituents, and that he voted to make her speaker of the House — twice — is not lost on them. Nor is the fact that Pelosi personally recommended Edwards to be Obama’s running mate in 2008. And don’t even mention his votes for the hugely unpopular stimulus package and bailouts for banks and automakers.
This year, even those instances in which he broke with the Democratic-party leadership are unlikely to do Edwards any favors with voters. Edwards offered not a peep of protestation when he voted against Obamacare, and this was after he voted to bring the bill to the floor in the first place. Many believe that his final “nay” vote was Pelosi-approved; the Democrats had more votes than they needed, and so let some members in conservative districts vote against the measure to help their reelection campaigns.
Many agree that if this is the year Chet Edwards finally goes down, he will have mostly himself to blame — he has failed to represent constituents’ concerns about spending, taxes, and the deficit, especially in recent years. A recent ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee highlights this perceived change in Edwards’s political character: “Chet Edwards calls himself independent. And when he went to Congress 20 years ago, maybe that was true,” a voice says. Whatever claims Edwards might have to “independent” status were likely squandered during the 2008 presidential campaign when he attempted to sell Barack Obama to the state of Texas as a man of “sound judgment.”
This year, Republicans believe they have a candidate strong enough to deliver Edwards’s seat: Bill Flores, who says he will do “everything I can to kill Obamacare.” Flores, a former energy executive who retired in order to seek office, has successfully tapped into the growing sense of dissatisfaction in the district. Angry voters are showing up to Flores rallies in ever-increasing numbers, many with copies of the Constitution in their back pockets, eager to voice their frustration with an out-of-touch political leadership in Washington and a mountain of government debt.
Given the political climate, Republican-party leaders feel they have every reason to be confident heading into November. Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Texas GOP, says that out of all the races he’s been following throughout the state, he’s making only one prediction: Bill Flores will beat Chet Edwards. In fact, Munisteri says that of all the Democrats in office, at every level of government in the state of Texas, Chet Edwards is the most likely to lose his seat this year. “I can’t say 100 percent, because you never can be sure in politics, but I’m very, very optimistic,” he says.
Still, it would be unwise to write Edwards off just yet. He has been thwarting GOP attempts to unseat him ever since he was first elected in 1991, even as the district has trended more and more conservative over the years. Every election cycle, the GOP has taken aim at Edwards’s seat with renewed confidence, only to see the Democrat prevail. As Edwards likes to boast, the National Republican Congressional Committee is “zero-for-ten in predicting my demise.”
“I’m used to being a target,” Edwards told the Associated Press. “This year, there’s clearly an anti-Washington environment, and I share those frustrations. I’m sickened by the hyper-partisanship. But I’m working hard at the grassroots level, letting my independent voting record speak for itself.”
Unfortunately for Edwards, this election has little to do with him personally. A GOP-sponsored poll released in May found that even though Edwards was generally well liked by voters in the district — 53 percent favorable to 38 percent unfavorable — only 41 percent wanted to reelect him. No further polling has been released since then, but Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both consider the race a toss-up.
“Whereas in the past, concerns have revolved around local issues, this year the national issues have become the local issues,” Flores says. As in many congressional races throughout the country, general dissatisfaction towards Washington will be a primary driver of voter turnout in this race.
“This runs much deeper than any one vote, deeper than any one policy; a lot of people want to send a message to Barack Obama any way they can, even if the only way to do that is to vote Chet Edwards out,” Wood says.
Mr. President, are you listening?
– Andrew Stiles writes for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.