Texas Rep. Edwards Beats Odds, but Faces Iraq War Vet in Midterm

The Supreme Court's decision last week upholding the current congressional redistricting plan in Texas wouldn't have helped four former colleagues of Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, the only Democrat to survive the state GOP's targeted redistricting in 2003.

But the high court's ruling so far hasn't slowed Edwards, who according to the GOP plan, wasn't supposed to be re-elected in 2004. That was the first election year after the Texas Legislature, with the help of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, redrew the lines to make it easier for Republicans to win.

"I respect the court's decision," Edwards said of the Supreme Court's ruling that a state has the right to redistrict anytime it wants, even it if is more than once in a decade. The decision effectively dismissed charges that the redistricting was unconstitutional gerrymandering.

"I'm not sure anyone is the winner in the Texas redistricting. It has cost taxpayers millions. It has created terrible divisiveness in the state … and uncertainty to this day," Edwards told FOXNews.com on the day of the ruling, June 28.

Uncertainly also applies to Edwards' future in Congress. In the current election, he faces Iraq War veteran Van Taylor, who has the ability to match Edwards' growing war chest with his own money, and who is attempting to appeal to the overwhelmingly Republican conservative base there.

"[These voters] are conservative, God-fearing, hardworking Texans who are hungry for a change in direction and in their representation in Washington," said Taylor.

But some political analysts say Edwards, who won in 2004 despite the fact that two-thirds of the redrawn district was completely new to him, may not be the target for change. He has been able to prove his moderate-conservative bona fides with the voters in the 17th District that is home to President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch, and is less vulnerable than before.

"Chet Edwards has proven he can win in that district, and I think it will be difficult this cycle to knock off any Democratic incumbent, let alone a Democrat who has been proven hard to knock off any time," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Washington-based election tip sheet, the Rothenberg Political Report.

The congressman couldn't agree more. "I think we're in a lot stronger position than I was in at this time two years ago," he said, adding that this time around, Bush is not at the top of the ticket. Bush beat Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry 70 percent to 30 percent in the district in 2004.

For a source of pride, Edwards points to his roots in the region — he was first elected to Congress nearly 16 years ago in the old Waco-centered 11th District — and to his work as ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs, where he said he has supported military and veterans services, an appealing attribute to voters here.

But Republicans say the lopsided margin in favor of Bush in 2004 only indicates how much this is GOP territory. They say they have a winner in Taylor.

"He is a Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq, running in a heavily military district in Central Texas," said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Van Taylor is a candidate without equal."

So far, Taylor has raised more than $1.1 million, almost $500,000 of it his own money, to Edwards' $1.6 million, of which half comes from political action committees. The tally makes this, so far, the most expensive House race in Texas. Both men also face Libertarian candidate Guillermo Acosta.

Taylor, who won a Republican primary on March 7, told FOXNews.com that he came back from Iraq and "married the girl who sent me a letter every day, started a family and bought a house." He said he was inspired to run after serving in the war and believes more veterans should be in Congress today.

"I'm running for the same reason I fought in Iraq — I am running for a better and safer America," he said. "A lot of people are telling me we need more people who have served in today's military and more people who have direct experience in this war."

The district centers on Waco, Johnson County, and College Station, home of Texas A&M University. Like most of Texas, this region was historically Democratic, but since the 1990s has trended heavily Republican.

Taylor said he is tapping into the everyday concerns of the voters wearied by gas prices, the war in Iraq and general pocketbook issues.

"I do hear consternation among voters about Washington," he said. "Most people I talk to blame the incumbents and people tell me they want to vote for anybody but the guy who's been there. I definitely feel a wind at my back because of Washington."

Collegio said that voters in the district are tired of what he called duplicity on Edwards' part. "Chet Edwards has been able to hold onto this seat by talking one way in Central Texas and a completely different way in Washington, D.C."

In Congress, Edwards has aligned with Bush and Republican initiatives on issues like the Iraq war, opposition to same sex marriage and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. He parts company with the GOP on tax cuts, the Medicare prescription drug benefit and partial birth abortion.

Former Rep. Martin Frost, who was one of the four Texas Democrats pushed out in 2004, said Edwards "will do just fine," in November.

"Chet is a very strong candidate," Frost said. "He has to pay attention but I think he will be re-elected."

But Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the Democrats shouldn't underestimate Taylor's military credentials in this race, which he places in his "Dirty 30" most competitive races for 2006.

"Chet Edwards is one of the Republicans' opportunity to turn a seat and they don't have many in the country," he said. "They have an Iraq veteran running against Edwards and that makes it even more so a national race."

Meanwhile, Taylor's detractors fault him for owning between $5 million and $25 million in Exxon-Mobil stock as part of an inheritance from his grandfather, who owned an oil company.

"Having this Exxon stock at a time when gas prices are up … [Republicans] would have been better off getting a cleaner candidate," said Frost.

Opponents also criticize Taylor for moving to the district a year ago to run in the race. Collegio, who notes that Edwards moved to Waco to run in the 11th District in 1990, argued "that dog won't bite."

"Van Taylor owns property in the district, he's raising his children there and he's a seventh-generation Texan," said Collegio, "I won't even go there."