TX17: New GOP Poll Has Bad News for Chet Edwards

by Stuart Rothenberg May 10, 2010 · 8:00 AM EDT

A new Republican poll obtained by the Rothenberg Political Report shows ten-term Democratic Congressman Chet Edwards (Texas 17) trailing challenger Bill Flores (R) by a dozen points. But Edwards, who isn’t releasing his own survey, remains confident that he can turn the contest from a referendum on President Barack Obama and national atmospherics into a choice between the two candidates.

The new survey of 400 likely voters, conducted May 2-3 by OnMessage Inc, a GOP firm, shows Edwards remains popular in the Republican-leaning district, with a name I.D. of 53% favorable/38% unfavorable.

But when matched against challenger Bill Flores, who recently won a run-off to become the Republican nominee, Flores holds a 53%-41% lead over Edwards. Flores’s name identification is just 37% favorable/10% unfavorable.

GOP observers argue that the data demonstrate that the race isn’t now about either Edwards or Flores. Instead, it’s about the larger political environment. President Obama’s job rating in the district is 33% approve/66% disapprove, according to the survey.

“There are a whole bunch of Republican voters who like Congressman Edwards. They say that they voted for him in the past, but they aren’t going to do it this time. This election isn’t about Chet Edwards,” says GOP pollster Wes Anderson of OnMessage, Inc.

An August 2009 OnMessage, Inc. survey found incumbent Edwards leading Flores in a hypothetical general election ballot by eight points, 44% to 36%.

The Congressman’s problem is the fundamentally Republican nature of his district. According to OnMessage, Inc. surveys, the district’s Congressional generic vote has moved from 45% Republican/28% Democratic in August to 51% Republican/27% Democratic now.

Edwards points out that he has always run – and won – in a Republican district, and the challenges he faces this year are not all that different than those he faced in the past, including in 2004, when he won a very competitive race by almost four percentage points.

“Republicans have repeatedly released poll numbers showing I shouldn’t be in Congress, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has consistently predicted I would be defeated,” Edwards noted correctly when asked about Republican optimism that they can defeat him in the fall.

During an interview, the Congressman made it clear that he would seek to make the Congressional contest a choice for voters between himself and Flores, rather than a referendum on the national Democratic Party.

“I have my toughest time against a generic Republican who isn’t well-known,” said Edwards, adding, “By the end of this race, Bill Flores will not be a generic Republican.”

Republican observers say that they can already see Edwards moving more aggressively to define Flores, and the Congressman does not dispute that.

“I intend to demonstrate by the end of this race that my values reflect this district better than his do,” said Edwards, who referred to Flores as “someone selected by Washington insiders, a former CEO of a Houston oil company and someone who never cast a vote in the district.”

GOP pollster Anderson agrees that Edwards has in the past succeeded in “getting Republicans who think that he isn’t a Washington Democrat,” but he notes that the OnMessage Inc. poll shows many of those voters are now gravitating to Flores.

Will Edwards be able to “localize” the race, discredit Flores and win reelection? Or will national atmospherics – including a midterm election in a district that gave John Kerry 30% and Barack Obama 32% — cause voters to ignore the combatants and instead go to the polls to send a message about their anger with the country’s direction?

That question is likely to be asked in dozens of districts this year, and the answers will determine whether Democrats will retain control of the House in November.

While acknowledging that he has a tough fight on his hands, Edwards thinks that his focus as a candidate, his campaign’s strong opposition research and his deep roots in the district will help him win another term.

“He’s spitting into a hurricane,” responds Wes Anderson of Edwards’s efforts to localize the contest and demonize Flores.