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Deep in the heart of Texas, smack in the middle of President Bush’s staunchly Republican home district, an eight-term Democratic congressman battled a Republican newcomer for reelection. Unlikely as it may have seemed, this trio had at least one thing in common: Harvard MBAs.

Visitors to Crawford, Texas, get presidential treatment. A billboard with the town’s most famous part-time resident, President George W. Bush (MBA ’75), gives the “thumbs-up” while First Lady Laura Bush beams at his side. Souvenir shops along the main drag peddle Bush bobblehead dolls, baseball caps, and refrigerator magnets. A life-size cardboard cutout of the President grins at diners chowing down on burgers and barbecue at the local café. Bright blue signs scattered around town proclaim: BUSH COUNTRY!

Well, not quite. Cruise around Crawford and on almost every street, even along the winding country road that leads to the Bush ranch, the “Western White House,” you see campaign signs touting the reelection of Democrat Chet Edwards (MBA ’81). He’s an eight-term congressman representing the 17th Congressional District, which rambles through the heart of Texas from Fort Worth’s southern suburbs to Crawford, Waco, and east to College Station, home of Texas A&M University and the presidential library of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. Political analysts rank Texas 17 as the nation’s most Republican congressional district represented by a Democrat. It’s an irony Edwards savors with a smile: “At several public meetings at the White House, President Bush has referred to me as ‘my congressman.’” But not for much longer if the Republican Party has its way.

The GOP painted a big target on Edwards and recruited a strong opponent in businessmanVan Taylor (MBA ’01), a 34-year-old, well-connected political neophyte and the only Iraqi war veteran running for Congress as a Republican. “Having a guy who was on the ground and had an extremely active role in Iraq, and who came back and made a lot of money in business — there are few better things on a political résumé,” says Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Taylor believes his own views on important issues reflect those of the district’s voters. “People here are generally conservative and want someone who supports the President and represents their conservative values,” he says.

Both parties have made winning the district a priority. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has designated the race as one of its competitive “Frontline 10” elections. Collegio calls it “one of the top five races” in which the GOP could pick up another House seat.

Campaign spending on both sides has flowed freely. As of mid-October, Edwards had raised about $2.8 million to Taylor’s $1.9 million, according to the New York Times. About half of Edwards’s contributions came from political action committees tied to interests such as labor, defense, and energy, while most of Taylor’s came from individuals, including developers, investors, and oilmen from outside the district.

Redistricting Threatened Edwards’s Seat

Edwards, 54, a career politician, has survived tough challengers before. In the 2004 election he won 51 percent of the vote in a district that went almost 70 percent for Bush — and he even carried Crawford. “I’m proud that 50,000 of the President’s supporters voted for me,” Edwards says. Moreover, he’s the only Democrat to survive a 2003 redrawing of Texas congressional districts by state GOP legislators and orchestrated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. The redistricting succeeded in boosting the number of Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation.

Part of the reason Edwards has been a political survivor is because he’s a “different kind of Democrat than most national Democrats are,” says Jon Bond, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, Edwards’s undergraduate alma mater. While the Taylor campaign portrays Edwards as too liberal for the district, the incumbent calls himself “independent-minded.” “Voters in this district split the ticket a lot,” he adds.

While the war in Iraq and national security are defining issues in some congressional races this year, Taylor hasn’t succeeded in using his military service to outflank his opponent. Edwards is a hawk on military matters, voting for the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. Local veterans praise his efforts to safeguard their benefits. While Taylor stands with the administration’s policy on Iraq, Edwards isn’t far behind. Pulling out now, he explains, “would be an absolute guarantee of chaos and anarchy.” Faced with a choice between a political novice vet and an incumbent hawk, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars’ political action committee endorsed Edwards.

Taylor has tried, with mixed success, to make immigration a hot-button issue, accusing Edwards of being soft on illegal immigrants. Talking tough, Taylor vows to fight any amnesty plan and favors deporting illegals. “I’m for zero penetration on the border,” he says. Taylor vows to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring employers to verify the legal status of workers, deporting illegals who are in jail, and denying illegals taxpayer-funded benefits such as welfare, free education, and food stamps. He says that Edwards lies about his record on immigration, accusing the incumbent of voting to give illegal immigrants food stamps, a claim Edwards calls “false, outrageous, and offensive.” Edwards’s approach to curbing illegal immigration is less hard-line and more centrist, seeking more border security (he helped write the law that added 1,500 border patrol agents), plus establishing a database to allow employers to check a job applicant’s legal status. He also opposes awarding amnesty and supports building a wall along strategic sections of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Edwards’s centrist leanings can also be seen in his votes with the President to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, to give the President a line-item veto to rein in spending, and most recently, to allow controversial electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens to combat terrorism. On the other hand, he voted to override the President’s veto of stem-cell legislation, for ethics and lobbying reform, and to block the deal that would have allowed a United Arab Emirates–based company to operate key U.S. seaports. “I support the President when I think what he is doing is right for our district,” Edwards says.

In a sure sign of Edwards’s broad appeal, two pro-business, conservative-leaning groups endorsed him: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business. “Chet Edwards has not always had a great record with us on pro-enterprise votes,” notes Pete Hovel, regional director of congressional and public affairs in the U.S. Chamber’s Dallas area office. “But in the last few years we have seen marked improvement, and we believe in redemption.” The conservative National Rifle Association also has raised its marks on Edwards’s voting record on gun issues from an F in the 1990s to a B this year. (Taylor got an A.) Although the NRA endorsed Edwards’s opponent, Arlene Wohlgemuth, in 2004, it abstained from getting involved in this year’s race.

Determined to put up the good fight, Republican Party leaders have pulled out some big guns to help Taylor shoot down the incumbent. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and Vice President Dick Cheney both stumped for Taylor and helped raise funds. President Bush formally endorsed Taylor in late October, calling him “an outstanding leader and a decorated combat veteran who will make a difference in Congress.”

While money hasn’t been a problem for Taylor, his grasp of issues has. The district’s two major newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, endorsed Edwards and criticized Taylor for not offering specifics on key issues. The News described Taylor as a “rookie who’s long on cash and slash-and-burn campaigning but short on answers.”

In a speech at a Republican luncheon in Waco, Taylor hit hot-button GOP issues: taxes (“I believe in lower taxes”), spending (“I believe the federal government is spending too much”), abortion (he’s against it), the Second Amendment (“I’m a lifetime member of the NRA, and my opponent is antigun”), and immigration. He portrays Edwards as a hypocrite who tells voters in Central Texas one thing and does another in Washington. “People have come over to our side complaining about how they’ve been lied to,” Taylor says.

To get out his message, Taylor has been logging miles around the district in a white pickup truck, knocking on doors and touting his experience as an Iraqi war veteran and pointedly supporting the President in the war on terror.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard in 1995, Taylor joined the Marine Corps, completed infantry and intelligence training, led a reconnaissance platoon, and served as an intelligence officer. Four years of active duty later, he joined the Marine Reserves while he pursued his MBA at Soldiers Field, then volunteered for duty with a reconnaissance battalion that was activated to fight in Iraq. Taylor’s platoon was the first of his Marine task force to enter Iraq before the start of the main invasion. His platoon also participated in the operation to rescue Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Taylor’s war record strikes an emotional chord with many conservative voters and veterans. “This guy is a true patriot,” says Nelson Modrall, a retired Army colonel who planned to vote for Taylor. “His country is very important to him, and he’s backed up his words with his actions.”

Some observers, though, point out that antiwar sentiment is growing in the district and that Bush is getting low marks for his handling of the conflict. “I’m hearing a lot of Bush-bashing among Republicans these days,” says Leon Smith, editor in chief of The Lone Star Iconoclast, Crawford’s newspaper.

Edwards also counts veterans among his strongest supporters. Before the redistricting, he represented the huge Fort Hood Army installation. “In his old district, he staked his career on helping the military and helping veterans,” political scientist Bond notes. “Based on the way the voters turned out last time, they appreciated that.”

HBS Experience Helps Both Candidates

On the campaign trail, Edwards plays up his Aggie degree more than his Harvard MBA. Taylor only mentions his MBA occasionally. They both agree, however, that HBS has helped them. “One of the greatest lessons of HBS for me was learning how to solve problems,” Edwards says. “It’s not only helped me in my campaign, but it’s also helped me in my work in homeland security and national defense. The title of ‘Harvard MBA’ doesn’t win many votes, but the problem-solving ability does.”

Taylor says his HBS training sustained him on the battlefield in Iraq. “Most people don’t think an Ivy League degree is going to help you in war, but it does,” he notes. “The leadership, operations, and negotiation classes that you take are extremely helpful. I would like to think I ran the best platoon in my company because I implemented what I learned in my operations and leadership classes.”

But Taylor’s lack of experience in Washington may be his biggest handicap. After sixteen years in Congress, Edwards wields political clout. He’s one of only five House members sitting on both the powerful Budget and Appropriations committees. “Waco would be at a disadvantage if we lost his experience and his ties to work the system,” says Bill Clifton, former chairman of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and a local business leader who voted for Bush and for Edwards in the last election. “One of the jobs of a congressman is to ensure we get our fair share of the monies coming out of Washington.”

Clifton also cites Edwards’s roots in the district — he has lived in Waco since 1987 and keeps a high profile, frequently appearing at ribbon cuttings and community events. On a cloudy September day, for instance, Edwards appears in the Cotton Harvest Festival parade in Moody northwest of Waco, then stops by the local Dairy Queen to chat with a young group of grassroots supporters. “Dairy Queen is my favorite spot,” he says. “Dilly Bars and DQ sandwiches are what keep me going.”

Taylor also has deep roots in Texas, but not in the district. He’s a seventh-generation Texan — one of his ancestors even signed the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico. He grew up in Midland, an oil-rich West Texas town where his family knew the Bushes (one of Taylor’s fondest memories was when George W. Bush pinned an Eagle Scout badge on him at age 14). Taylor’s father, Nick, a Midland attorney, and mother are major contributors to the Republican Party. When Bush was Texas governor, he appointed both to state boards, and Nick Taylor was appointed by the Republican Speaker of the Texas House to the Texas Ethics Commission.

Taylor downplays his well-connected background while running in a district that is small-town (Waco and College Station are the largest cities) and blue-collar. His great-grandfather cofounded Humble Oil, one of the companies that created what’s now Exxon Mobil. Taylor disclosed in financial statements that he owns between $5 million and $25 million of Exxon Mobil stock. After working for McKinsey & Company and Trammell Crow, he started a real estate investment firm and now runs Waco-based Vananne LLC, focused on commercial real estate turnarounds and reinvestments.

Taylor moved from north Dallas to the small town of West, near Waco, not long before he announced his candidacy. He says he and his wife, Anne, relocated for the “quality of life” and a better environment to raise their young daughters. Others see the move as political opportunism. “Most people in this community who are not hard-core Republicans think of him as a carpetbagger,” Clifton says. “He hasn’t really lived here and walked the walk. He is not one of us at the present day. He may very well be one day. It will be interesting to see if he stays in the district if he loses the election.” Edwards admits he also has moved several times during his political career to run for office, but maintains that his long-term ties give him an advantage. “The big question is who can be more effective for our district,” he says.

Edwards may defy the odds once again. Polls in mid-October showed him with a commanding 21-point lead of 54 percent to Taylor’s 33 percent. But some political analysts say it’s a tough race to call and that Taylor should climb above 40 percent of the vote. All those Edwards campaign signs in Crawford may be an early warning that folks here still have an independent streak and vote for the person rather than for the party — even in the town that the President calls home.

— Kathryn Jones is a contributing editor to Texas Monthly magazine and lives in the 17th Congressional District.

The winner: Edwards with 58 percent of the vote.

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