Texas District 17 does more than just lean Republican. In 2008, 67 percent of voters chose John McCain for president. The district, which includes Waco, College Station, some southern Dallas suburbs, and President Bush’s Crawford Ranch, would seem to be an easy fit for conservative Republican Congressmen. Yet, Democrat Chet Edwards has held the seat for the last six years, and represented Texas’s 11th District prior to redistricting in 2004.
Edwards has campaigned as a moderate, conservative Democrat in the past, but recent votes and national trends have enticed several Republicans to challenge Edwards this year. Five candidates ran in the March 2 primary, of those the former oil and gas industry CEO Bill Flores came out ahead with 33 percent of the vote. The former sports broadcaster and video production owner Rob Curnock came in second place with 29 percent. With no candidate taking in over 50 percent, a runoff is scheduled for April 13.
When both candidates spoke to TAS on Friday, they each emphasized their own conservative values and agreed that the other candidate was generally conservative as well. Both candidates are campaigning on repealing healthcare reform, and support lowering taxes, although Curnock also added that he would support a FairTax. Both candidates criticized Edwards for supporting TARP, and voting against a ban on partial birth abortion in 2003. Both Republican candidates identify as pro-life, but Flores boasts the endorsements of Texas Right to Life and Concerned Women for America. Edwards also voted for the stimulus, and against the most recent Stupak Amendment. Curnock also expressed his distaste towards Edwards’s vote for cutting off funding for troops in Iraq, and his voting against the Iraq surge, and his opposing the Bush tax cuts while Flores hammered Edwards for voting for the Federal Budget.
Edwards did, however, vote against the Healthcare bill, and voted against Cap-and-Trade. “He has been surviving by convincing enough Republicans and conservatives that he is indeed a conservative. But when he came out and endorsed Barack Obama, he finally came out of the closet,” Curnock declared.
Both candidates contended that they were the more electable challenger, with Flores mainly citing his business background and Curnock highlighting his experience campaigning in a previous close for the seat. “I’ve created more jobs, I have balanced more payrolls, met more budgets, repaid more debt, and purchased more health insurance than Rob Curnock and Chet Edwards put together,” said Flores while asserting his experience in creating jobs. When asked his ideas for cutting the deficit, Flores suggested cutting funding for the Department of Energy, scaling back United Nations funding, and making sure that Planned Parenthood and ACORN were not funded.
Curnock emphasized his electability by citing his close race in the 2008 general election against Edwards and argued that his previous campaigns indicate that he is a less risky candidate in that he has been vetted several times. “I ran in 2008 when no one else was willing to go up against Chet Edwards,” Curnock said. He received slightly more than 45 percent of the vote. He cited extra support that he would receive this year from National and State parties, as well as lower minority turnout caused by Obama not being on the ballot, and national trends favoring Republicans as reasons why this year he could get more than 50 percent of the vote in the general election. Curnock attacked Flores for his prior non-participation, saying that “we didn’t get any help from any of the Republican candidates that jumped in the primary [this year]. If we had, we might have won,” Curnock pondered. He told TAS that he believed he had an upward trend showing that he was a strong candidate due to his ability to tighten the race in a year where Republicans had generally done worse than in previous elections. In 2006, Republican challenger Van Taylor received five percentage points fewer than Curnock received in 2008, 40 percent of the vote.
Flores did not share his view that Curnock’s previous campaigning was a sign that he was more electable. “He could make the case that he’s more experienced [campaigning] … but his track record has not been one of success in running in this district,” Flores observed. Curnock also ran unsuccessfully in the 2000 and 2002 Republican primaries.
Flores has outraised and outspent Curnock. As the money dries up during the runoff season, fundraising could become a problem for Curnock, although either candidate is likely to receive substantial support once the primary is over. Geographically, Curnock has held strong in Waco, the most populous city in the district, however 4th place challenger and Waco native Chuck Wilson has since endorsed Flores.
When looking at a colored map of Congressional Districts, District 17 looks like West Berlin during the Cold War — surrounded by red, albeit a different kind of red. Regardless of which candidate comes out on top in the next two weeks, it will be interesting to watch Edwards try to hold onto the seat in the fall.