McGREGOR, Texas | Rep. Chet Edwards, an imperiled Democrat running for his political life deep in the heart of Republican territory, finds exiting American Legion Post No. 273 slow going.
The wife of a World War II veteran hugs him. Several men line up to shake his hand. Another woman talks to him for about 10 minutes, thanking him for his work on military issues, bringing jobs to this farm and ranching town of about 4,700 and, in her words, thinking for himself.
“You’ve done a good job,” said Donna Smith, 50, an office manager and a Republican who said she will vote for Mr. Edwards again this year. Later, she said the congressman “has proven himself and shown that he can get things done.”
“I hope people will look at him and his record,” Ms. Smith said, “and not just believe what’s being said about him.”
Mr. Edwards is in the fight of his 20-year congressional career, struggling to hold onto one of the nation’s most conservative districts represented by a Democrat. Stretching for 170 miles, the central Texas district includes former President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford; Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, now headed by Clinton special prosecutor Kenneth Starr; and the city of Waco.
“I’m used to being a target,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview. “This year there’s clearly an anti-Washington environment, and I share those frustrations. I’m sickened by the hyperpartisanship. But I’m working hard at the grass-roots level, letting my independent voting record speak for itself.”
Mr. Edwards consistently makes the list of the most vulnerable Democrats; he hails from a district that gave Republican John McCain a whopping 67 percent of the presidential vote in 2008. Republicans again have set their sights on capturing the seat, counting on voter anger and frustration with a slow-moving economic recovery and slumping approval numbers for President Obama.
Mr. Edwards is among dozens of Democrats who have bucked their party on some elements of Mr. Obama’s agenda - the stimulus package, health care overhaul and a climate change bill. Mr. Edwards‘ lengthy tenure - he’s in his tenth term - and his work as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs has translated into federal money for his district. But in a year of voter discontent with soaring deficits, the effort is more of a liability than a strength.
Some of the most senior Democrats in conservative districts are facing what could be their most difficult races. Among them: Missouri’s 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and South Carolina’s 14-term Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Even Democrats who, like Mr. Edwards, voted against the health care and climate change bills are locked in tough races because they are being linked to Mr. Obama and liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Georgia Rep. Jim Marshall and South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin join Mr. Edwards on the list.
“Jim Marshall’s days are numbered because of his continued support of Nancy Pelosi and her agenda of backroom deals, hocus-pocus economics and massive government spending,” Mr. Marshall’s opponent, former Georgia legislator Austin Scott, wrote on his website.
Directly in GOP crosshairs are roughly four dozen Democrats in districts that Mr. McCain won in 2008. That’s one part of any GOP calculation to reclaiming the House.
Mr. Edwards‘ closest race was in 2004, when he was the only Texas Democrat in a competitive race to keep his seat after the GOP-led redrawing of the state’s congressional districts - winning with just 51 percent.
This year he faces oil and gas executive Bill Flores, who said he is confident he can win his first run for public office with support from Republicans and tea party activists.
“Americans are reawakened because the Democratic takeover caused them to pay attention, and the execution of the Obama-Pelosi agenda has really frightened Americans,” Mr. Flores said.