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Candidates Line Up to Take on Battle-Tested Edwards

Correction Appended

There’s little question Republicans are looking to target Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who could face yet another tough re-election in his solidly conservative Waco-based seat. The question is who his opponent will be.

Both experienced and inexperienced Republicans are preparing their Federal Election Commission forms in Texas’ 17th district, encouraged by a strong showing by poorly funded 2008 nominee Rob Curnock.

Curnock held Edwards to 53 percent of the vote, despite receiving almost no support from the national party. Curnock, a small-business owner from Waco, plans to run again and hopes this time he’ll receive more support from national and local party leaders.

“It was getting to the point where literally I would have had to carry a gun and wear a mask to raise money around here,— he recalled. Edwards raised $2.3 million compared to Curnock’s $110,000.

Curnock said enthusiasm started building when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested Edwards as a vice presidential pick for then-Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), giving Republicans an opportunity to tie the incumbent to Democratic leaders.

Curnock said he is already a year ahead of where he was in the previous cycle, having retained his staff and his contacts across the district. In fact, this will be his fourth Congressional race: He lost primary bids in a different district in 2000 and 2002.

While it remains relatively early in the cycle, there doesn’t appear to be consensus among national or state GOP operatives about whom their strongest candidate might be or whether they will be able to land a top-tier recruit. A bevy of candidates in addition to Curnock have declared their interest in the race, and at this point a crowded Republican primary appears inevitable.

Chuck Wilson, who owns a construction and development company in Waco, has established an exploratory committee. He said he has a campaign manager and a couple of part-time workers and just hired a fundraiser over the weekend.

Wilson touts his experience as a small-business owner with degrees from the University of Texas and Baylor University as his qualifications for serving for Congress. He also served overseas for the CIA from 1984 to 1995, following his completion of graduate school. He returned to Waco and bought his first business after that.

Wilson said economic concerns are the reason he jumped in the race. He said that Congress’ approval of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the bailout of American automakers have “outraged— him.

Darren Yancy, a businessman and first-time candidate from Burleson, has also filed to run. He sells insurance and real estate but has not gotten involved in politics, locally or nationally, in the past.

“What I’ve simply been is a good person that participates in the voting process,— he said.

Other candidates have also been mentioned. David McIntyre, who finished third in the Republican primary in 2004, is rumored to be considering another run. He now serves as director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M. Jeff Beene, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Waco, has also considered running. Some Republicans speculate that state Sen. Steve Ogden has higher office aspirations, while his colleague, Sen. Kip Averitt, denied that he will join the fray.

M.A. Taylor has served as chairman of the Waco-based McLennan County Republican Party since 1995. He thinks some of the candidates are better qualified than others.

“Quite frankly, I’ve tried to discourage some of the folks from running,— he said. “I just don’t think they have the exposure necessary to mount a viable campaign. I don’t think they can raise the money to make a campaign of it.—

Edwards has a long history of narrowly defeating well-funded Republicans in this conservative district. Since his first election to Congress in 1990, the former state Senator has won the general election with more than 55 percent only five times, most recently in 2006. In that race, he defeated Iraq War veteran Van Taylor with 58 percent of the vote. Edwards spent $3.1 million, while Taylor spent $2.5 million.

Arlene Wohlgemuth, then a state Representative, ran against Edwards in a high-profile race after Texas’ mid-decade redistricting during the 2004 cycle. Edwards was the only targeted Democrat to survive the GOP-led redraw in 2004, when Republicans gained a net five seats.

Now a lobbyist based in Austin, Wohlgemuth said a Republican challenger would need help to win.

“I think the ability to beat Chet is going to depend in large part on what happens on the national level,— she said, referencing economic issues.

Bryan Preston, communications director at the Republican Party of Texas, agreed that national issues would be the key to Edwards’ defeat. He said the Republican nominee would do best to “hammer two themes.— First, they should emphasize that even though Edwards might be a conservative Democrat, he still voted with Democrats for the stimulus packages.

“The other one is that a vote for Edwards … ultimately empowers folks that are very unpopular in Texas,— Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he said.

For his part, Edwards is not worried. Furthermore, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not name Edwards to its “Frontline— program for endangered incumbents earlier this year.

The Congressman noted that Republicans have always tried to tie him to national Democratic leaders. He emphasized that stimulus funding will be used toward necessary projects in Texas, including improvements on the Veterans Affairs hospital in Waco and a highway in the northern part of the district and a new hospital at Fort Hood, just outside his district. He added that in 2008 he earned the endorsements of conservative-leaning groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the Texas Farm Bureau.

“They’ve always tried to tie me to the national Democratic leadership. It’s never worked, and it won’t work this time,— he said.

The Congressman noted that his toughest re-election campaigns come in presidential election years when turnout rises. His ability to draw bipartisan support was clearly demonstrated by the fact that he ran 21 points ahead of Obama on the ballot last year (53 percent to 32 percent).

Taylor, the McLennan County Republican chairman, had a unique way of measuring Republican strength in the district. He referred to two tea parties held in protest of national fiscal policy on April 15. He said 1,200 people attended the one earlier in the day, and 1,800 people attended a later one. According to a local news report, a law enforcement officer estimated the crowd included a few hundred. Another tea party is scheduled for July 4.

“If the next tea party is bigger than the first one, I think Chet will be in trouble,— he said.

Correction: May 5, 2009

The article incorrectly stated one of the institutions from which Chuck Wilson graduated. He has degrees from the University of Texas and Baylor University. Also, Darren Yancy is from Burleson, not Waco.

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