Texas 17 pits incumbent Chet Edwards (D) versus Van Taylor (R).

For some background on my take on this race, you might want to read my post from last spring. To briefly summarize: Chet Edwards is a resilient Democratic Congressman in an increasingly Republican district (even more GOP as a result of Tom Delay's celebrated redistricting plan). Edwards stays on top of the tiger with hard work and conservative votes. Van Taylor is the most attractive candidate Edwards has faced in years. He is a young, Harvard-educated, Marine veteran of Iraq and family man. His biggest problem is that his roots in Central Texas are very shallow.

Where are we right now? Congressman Edwards is the overwhelming winner in the "yard signs" race in Waco. Waco is the largest community in the district and part of the old "District 11," which Edwards represented for fourteen years. Waco is incredibly loyal to Edwards (or "Chet," as most folks say) and will go in a big way for the incumbent.

But the key for a Republican candidate in this district (see insert), which stretches from Waco up the I-35W corridor into the outskirts of Fort Worth and then south of Waco slides off the I-35 corridor southeast into "redder" communities, is winning big enough outside of Waco to make up for Chet's huge advantage in his old territory. While the old Texas 11 remains loyal, many of the voters of Texas 17 are much less familiar with Edwards and not especially sympathetic toward the national Democratic party.

In 2004, when the district went 69 percent for President Bush (who is registered to vote in McLennan County) Edwards eked out a victory over a lackluster opponent. It is likely that Republicans will not run nearly as strong anywhere in the area this time around with the President off the ballot. Presumably, if Edwards could hold off a Republican challenge last cycle, he should be in shape to win again in the midterm.

However, the conventional wisdom does not take into account how hard-charging Van Taylor seems to be. To repeat, he is an attractive candidate with national backing and plenty of money. Both campaigns have gone negative (anecdotally, I hear more complaints about Taylor than Edwards).

Taylor must overcome the "outsider" image. He is not from Waco. Mudslinging is one thing--but coming from someplace else to mudsling against "our Congressman" is harder to stomach. There is no good answer on that one. Shake a lot of hands, talk Central Texan as much as possible, tell the folks how much you love the place and cross your fingers.

Taylor must also overcome that Edwards votes with the President more than many Republicans do. It is almost impossible to find a wedge issue on Iraq, terrorism, gun control, support for the military, etc. Edwards has some vulnerability on abortion, but, even there, his position is hard to hit squarely. For voters to unseat Edwards, they will need to decide to send home an eight-term Congressman with a conservative voting record for someone about whom they know nearly nothing.

Why do I think it will be closer than the conventional wisdom suggests?

Van Taylor is trying very hard to "nationalize" this election. He is currently running a campaign ad that features John Kerry. Nationalizing the election may be poor strategy for Republicans around the country, but here, in Central Texas, especially in the more rural counties, anti-Kerry, anti-Ted Kennedy, anti-Democratic party sentiment is very powerful. Associating yourself with the Republican party and President Bush, and reminding your voters that your opponent answers to Nancy Pelosi, plays very well.

Most likely, Congressman Edwards will continue to represent Texas 17, but I am convinced that this is no cake-walk.