Republican voters on Tuesday will choose among five candidates vying to oppose Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) in November, and the fact that there is no runaway favorite in the large field practically ensures a runoff next month.
There is very little policy-wise to distinguish the five conservatives, so electability and the candidates’ professional backgrounds have emerged as major criteria for primary voters to weigh.
“We just differ on which skills are most important,” said Dave McIntyre, an educator and military veteran who is seeking the seat. “We differ on which of us has a background that is most applicable to the challenges that the nation faces.”
The likelihood of a runoff on April 13 owes to the geographic distribution of the large field. Two candidates are from McLennan County, which includes Waco and is the largest population center in the 17th district. The other three are from Brazos County, which includes Bryan and College Station, home to Texas A&M University.
Because those two counties will together comprise more than half of the primary vote in the 12-county district, each could place a candidate in the runoff.
“The odds may be good that there will be a runoff between someone from Bryan and someone from Waco,” said M.A. Taylor, the vice chairman of the GOP organization in McLennan County.
Rob Curnock, a businessman from Waco, is likely to secure a berth in the runoff because he has residual name recognition as the 2008 Republican nominee against Edwards. Curnock ran an underfunded campaign, ignored by the National Republican Congressional Committee and state Republicans. He got 46 percent of the vote, aided by Barack Obama’s poor performance in the district. Curnock sees the current race as a continuation of his previous campaign.
“We’ve got the goodwill of a lot of voters that I was the only candidate that’s running that was actually willing to stand up and challenge the current incumbent Congressman to the point where we now know that this seat is vulnerable to the right candidate winning the Republican primary,” Curnock said. “And I believe, of course, that I am that candidate.”
Curnock said he’s confident he can secure a majority of votes in Tuesday’s primary and avoid a runoff election between the top two finishers. But that is a minority opinion among GOP officials and the other candidates.
Bill Flores, a wealthy businessman from Bryan, also is a serious contender for a runoff spot despite entering the race late. He’s the preferred candidate of the NRCC and has the most professional campaign team.
He’s also the best-funded candidate. Through Feb. 10, Flores reported raising $604,000, four times as much as his next-best-funded challenger and more than all of his opponents combined. About 70 percent of Flores’ receipts came from the candidate himself.
Flores is touting his background in business as a major selling point to Republican primary voters.
“They’re wanting a limited-government conservative who has a background in the private sector, who knows how to create jobs, who knows what it means to meet a payroll, who knows what it means to have to balance a budget, and to also be someone who knows what it means to borrow and repay debt and who understands how the capital markets work,” Flores said.
“We’ve been able to give them that person they’re looking for in that race,” he added.
Flores’ campaign also says that he is the Republican Edwards doesn’t want to face in November. The campaign has circulated a Feb. 10 fundraising letter from Edwards’ campaign in which the Congressman described Flores, though not by name, as an “oil and gas millionaire from the Houston area” preferred by “Washington partisans who don’t care about our district.”
Flores’ campaign manager, Matt Mackowiak, said the letter shows that Edwards “is lashing out at the one conservative Republican that he most fears in November: Bill Flores.”
“I would probably guess that the [runoff] race will be between Curnock and Flores,” said Taylor, the McLennan County party official.
Curnock faces competition for Waco-area votes from Chuck Wilson, a real estate businessman and former CIA case officer who has emerged as the third major candidate in the race. Wilson is touting his deep familial ties in McLennan County, where he notes that Edwards has dominated the vote in general elections.
“Where you’re from and how well-connected you are to the district really matters, and there’s simply not another candidate in the race that has the kind of local connections that I have,” Wilson said. “People I went to elementary school with are on school boards, city councils, mayors, etc., all across McLennan County, and that is what it’s going to take to beat Chet Edwards.”
Though he’s not from Brazos County, Wilson secured an endorsement from the editorial page of the (Bryan-College Station) Eagle, the district’s second-largest newspaper. The editorial praised Wilson’s business and CIA background and his “sharp grasp of the issues and his practical approach to addressing the nation’s problems.”
McIntyre, who is from College Station, is touting a background of three decades of service in the Army, including the last decade specializing in homeland security.
“My specific point is that I have an experience at national-level issues — international, national, state and local — that my competitors don’t,” McIntyre said. “I wish that I had had more opportunities to emphasize that.”
Tim Delasandro, a registered nurse from College Station, is expected to finish fifth.
Edwards has been a perennial target for Republicans, who have yet to find the right winning formula in the conservative-leaning district. National Republicans are again high on their chances of targeting him again this year.
Alex Youn, Edwards’ campaign manager, said in a statement, “In a time when politicians are too often mired in petty partisanship, Chet Edwards has continued his bipartisan leadership in championing the cause of America’s veterans and troops, creating jobs and improving the quality of life for families in our district.”
There’s been little intraparty squabbling in the primary, which the candidates said has generally been civil.
“I think we’re going to come out of it with Republicans unified with whoever wins,” McIntyre said.