Iraq War Veteran Tests Self In New Sort Of Combat - Texas Politics
Dan Genz , Waco Tribune-Herald
Iraq war veteran Van Taylor emerged victorious from a new kind of combat last week. Now he's preparing to use what he learned for yet another formidable challenge, one to be decided at the ballot box eight months from now.
But come November, Taylor won't be facing a former congressional aide with limited experience in the electoral arena. He'll be up against one of Texas' most resilient Democrats, a congressman whose community insights and House seniority, some claim, have greatly benefited the endangered Waco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and paved the way for improved water quality.
"This race was hard fought and well won," Taylor said of the primary, "and I think that that's plenty good training" for the long campaign ahead against U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.
The 33-year-old businessman defeated former Capitol Hill aide Tucker Anderson after a long and costly race that required $475,000 of his own money, netted the governor's last-minute endorsement and won the backing of key party leaders.
Anderson had a slight lead at the end of last Tuesday's early voting, but Taylor quickly turned the tide when the rest of the returns came in, winning with 54 percent.
"I knew it would be a close race," Taylor said afterward. "I think people ultimately connected with this idea that we need change in Washington."
While some Republicans are downright enthusiastic about Taylor's chances - Crawford business owner Valerie Duty says she plans to scout Edwards' Washington office next month to give Taylor decorating tips - others acknowledge the gaping wounds left from a hostile primary battle.
"We need to band together as one group and support (Taylor) and keep what has happened in the past be in the past and not the future," said Kurt Krakowian, a vocal Anderson supporter. "The only way we can beat Chet is to support each other and not fall into party separation."
As Taylor reflected on his victory during an interview at his Waco campaign headquarters last week, he also began concentrating on critical tasks at hand. He says he must unify the Republican Party, prepare for another costly race, meet more voters across the region - and, along the way, spend some time with wife Anne and his young daughters.
Helen was born last month in the final throes of the campaign, and 1-year-old Laura has been a fixture in his advertisements. But with the campaign bracing for the battle against Edwards, Taylor said he won't have much time for breaks.
In an e-mail to supporters Wednesday, Taylor said the general election season began "the moment the last vote was counted" in the primary.
But right now he doesn't want to talk about the candidate he faces.
Although he said 30 people asked him about Edwards the day after he won the bruising GOP primary battle, Taylor's response was only, "We'll get to that."
"I'm going to take this opportunity to tell people who I am and why I'm running and what I believe in," Taylor said. "It's not that I haven't been doing that. It's that before I was talking primarily to Republican primary voters and now I'm talking to everybody."
He said he also wanted to clarify the purpose of an election.
"I'm not running against someone or against something," Taylor said, who scarcely used Edwards' name during his interview with the Tribune-Herald. "I'm running because I believe in something."
The GOP primary gave clues of what he believes he can do.
He says he will use his military credentials to become a leader on defense issues nationally and fight for the embattled Waco VA hospital, which has faced the threat of downsizing or worse since 2003.
"I will have the unique moral authority to stand up ... on behalf of men and women in the field and the veterans at home," Taylor said.
The primary race showcased his strengths and possible weaknesses.
Taylor used a huge fundraising edge over Anderson of more than $700,000 to fuel his campaign. His wealth and national network of supporters are one reason that party leaders see him as a viable candidate against Edwards.
The race also showcased where Taylor is vulnerable: his recent arrival in the district.
Taylor was raised in dusty, oil-rich Midland and began his business career in Dallas before moving to the little, Czech-flavored town of West in McLennan County last summer. Anderson made residency a critical issue of his campaign, repeatedly hammering Taylor as a political transplant.
By campaign's end, Taylor had responded by questioning Anderson's own residency in the district and labeling him a negative campaigner. For most of the race, however, Taylor tried to focus on his military experience.
In the war, his platoon crossed the border before the invasion. Later, he led the rescue mission of 31 injured Marines. On another operation later in the war, his platoon helped rescue a famous hostage, Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch.
But while many have praised Taylor's military experience, some question his political performance, Edwards among them.
"Despite the fact that he had the endorsement of the Washington establishment and Austin, including the governor, and outspent his opponent 3 to 1, he barely won the primary and begins with a divided party," Edwards said.
"I think the last thing that Republican leaders wanted was a divisive primary, but this one turned out to be extremely heated and divisive ... and I think the negative nature of and attacks in this campaign will make Taylor's effort more difficult," Edwards said.
But Taylor's allies say such wounds heal. Anderson's almost immediate decision to endorse Taylor after the primary might seem sure evidence of that.
"When you have a hard-fought campaign, tensions can run very, very, very high," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, a group that helps the GOP compete for seats.
"But give it a week, or two, or a month, after this type of election and Republicans remember that they're Republicans and the folks who have supported Tucker Anderson or Van Taylor know either of those guys is a 100 percent better alternative than Chet Edwards."
Some longtime political observers in the area aren't optimistic about Taylor's chances against Edwards. Even so, the Republican leanings of this sprawling district leave the national party counting on Taylor to mount a strong challenge. The controversial, GOP-engineered redistricting of 2003 helps Republicans even further.
"Texas 17 is one of the most competitive districts in America," Collegio said. "Van Taylor is a great candidate for Republicans in a district that belongs to Republicans."
No district in the nation voted more heavily for President Bush in 2004 yet still elected a Democrat to Congress than this one, which went 69 percent for President Bush.
But that doesn't mean the Republican congressional nominee will win, says GOP political consultant Bryan Eppstein of Fort Worth, who has managed campaigns for Waco-area politicians.
Eppstein said Edwards accomplished a "mighty feat" in winning re-election last year in President Bush's home district. It will take nothing less than a comparably impressive effort by a Republican to topple him this year.
Taylor won the GOP primary because of his huge financial edge and aggressive voter outreach efforts, said Harvey Tucker, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"Is all of this going to work against Chet Edwards? It didn't work last time," Tucker said, referring to the failed 2004 GOP campaign. "Edwards demonstrated in the last campaign he gives as much as he takes."