Two Vets Vying to Take on Edwards

Posted September 19, 2005 at 6:39pm

Two Iraq war veterans are trying to parlay their military service into victory over eight-term Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) next year. Republicans Bentley Nettles and Van Taylor are facing off for the right to challenge Edwards in the conservative 17th district. Nettles is a lieutenant colonel in the Texas Army National Guard and Bronze Star recipient who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Taylor is an Iraq war combat veteran and major in the Marine Corps Inactive Ready Reserve.

Like generations of World War II and Korean War veterans who cited military service as essential to their fitness to hold office and effectively address the Cold War threat from the Soviet Union, Nettles and Taylor believe they are uniquely qualified to serve in the House at a time when terrorism and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq loom as large as any issue on Congress’ plate.

“Given the fact that Congress will face issues regarding the war on terror for many years to come, I think we need policymakers who know what it means to make war,” Taylor said in a telephone interview.

Tucker Anderson (R), an attorney and former aide to Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), also is running in the GOP primary. He did not return a telephone message left requesting comment for this story.

While national Republicans declined to take sides in the race prior to the outcome of the March 14 primary, they are privately thrilled at the idea of pitting a war-on-terror veteran against a Democratic incumbent seen as highly vulnerable. Edwards won re-election in 2004 with just 51 percent of the vote, compared to President Bush’s 70 percent in the district, which includes Bush’s ranch in Crawford.

Republican consultant Brent Littlefield cautioned against military-veteran candidates depending too much on their war backgrounds to put them over the top in tough races, saying that even in an age of terrorism, voters are interested in the breadth of a politician’s positions on the issues.

But he said that part of a candidate’s biography should not be dismissed as irrelevant — especially when the candidate is a Republican.

“Certainly a Republican candidate with a veteran background is in a stronger position, because Republicans are already looked at as being in a stronger position [than Democrats] on national security,” Littlefield said.

Democratic Iraq war veterans also are entering Congressional races this cycle, led by Paul Hackett, who came close to upsetting now-Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) in an August special election.

The biographies of Nettles and Taylor read like a political recruiter’s dream.

Nettles, an attorney in College Station and a Houston native, served in the Judge Advocate General Corps in Bosnia, and then later participated in combat-support operations and elections coordination in Afghanistan and Iraq. He received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Iraq during an October 2004 rocket attack.

Taylor, a Waco businessman and native of Midland, moved to the 17th district about eight months ago. As a Marine Corps captain in Iraq, he successfully countered several terrorist ambushes, lead reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines prior to the invasion and participated in the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch.

In the political battle between these two military veteran candidates, Taylor could have the upper hand — at least initially.

The Harvard Business School graduate already has a campaign manager, Mary Diamond, and an experienced Republican media consultant, Jeff Norwood, on his payroll; Nettles said he is still talking to prospective strategists and staff and doesn’t expect to begin hiring until early October.

Taylor’s team expects its candidate to be fully funded; Nettles speculated that the outpouring of financial support for the victims of Hurricane Katrina could hinder his ability to raise money.

“A lot of people are giving their disposable income to victims of Katrina, as they should,” Nettles said. “I think that will impact the amount of available capital for all candidates.”

Edwards, no stranger to political warfare, is preparing to defend his seat in the general election, as he is unlikely to face a challenge in the Democratic primary.

He spent $2.5 million on his race in 2004 and will probably spend more in 2006. Edwards already is ahead of where he was at this time in the previous cycle, aides said.

The Congressman defeated Republican state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth in 2004 in a district drawn to make his re-election difficult, courtesy of the Republican mid-decade redistricting effort in Texas two years ago.

GOP insiders blame Edwards’ victory on Wohlgemuth and her poorly run campaign. But the Congressman’s voting record shows that he might be a Democratic incumbent who can survive in a district that leans Republican.

He voted to fund the Iraq war, for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to ban same-sex marriage and to restrict gun liability.

National Democrats don’t expect the war record of Nettles or Taylor to trip up Edwards in 2006.

“Chet Edwards is in fantastic shape in his district. He has been elected and re-elected time and time again, and one of the reasons for that is his incredible support of the veteran community,” said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “No one fights harder for veterans.”