By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
Rob Beckham has trouble making himself heard over the static of his cell phone.
Sometimes he comes across vast dead areas where he can’t be reached at all as he travels the vast 36-county stretch that is the district he hopes to represent.
Beckham is the latest Republican challenger to Charles Stenholm to represent Texas’ 17th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
And he has a hard job campaigning against a well-liked opponent with two decades of congressional experience and a reputation as the leader of an influential group of conservative Democrats, the Blue Dogs.
“I feel outstanding,” Beckham told the Optimist Wednesday. “I think we’re going to win this race. We’ve run the campaign we intended to from the start. Everything’s positive from our end.”
Beckham’s optimism, he has said, is grounded in the fact that Stenholm has outspent him by more than 2-1 this year. He said it’s because Stenholm is nervous about his chances.
Stenholm has had close battles before. He nearly was upset in 1996, and his 1998 re-election was also close. But in 2000, Stenholm cruised to his 12th term, and he says he will continue to serve.
“Abilene’s a conservative city, not necessarily a Republican one,” Stenholm said. “I have been very representative of conservative Democratic values.”
Should Beckham defeat Stenholm, it would be an upset of mammoth proportions in a year when every congressional seat could tip the national balance of power.
Stenholm is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee; he’d be the chair should his party retake the House Tuesday. His name has also been mentioned, albeit briefly, as a possible conservative Speaker of the House candidate should Democrats be holding a slim majority in the House when the dust settles.
However, not everything Stenholm has done has been traditionally conservative. And it’s those contrary votes that Beckham has tried to make the focus of this race.
Stenholm voted against President Bush’s $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001, one of only five major bills in which he did not side with the conservative Texas leadership in the U.S. House that year. He also voted against Bush’s economic stimulus package, which included more tax cuts.
“The biggest difference is our philosophy toward taxes in general,” said Beckham, a former Abilene city councilman. “Charlie believes that we’re not taxed too much and that the federal government is the best spender of our money.”
Stenholm disagrees, of course, as he has all campaign long. Beckham has made Stenholm’s opposition to Bush’s tax cut a cornerstone of his campaign, and the congressman has therefore spent considerable time addressing the subject, defending his assertion that he’s a conservative Democrat.
“It’s not conservative to borrow on our children’s future to pay current needs,” Stenholm told the Optimist, arguing that tax cuts of such size were damaging to the economy. “To borrow and spend is liberal.”
Other issues also come into play in the 17th District, one that is larger and more conservative than many East Coast states.
The 17th is heavily dependent on its large tracts of farmland, its numerous oil fields and Dyess Air Force Base.
That combination creates a constituency that votes liberal on farming subsidies but conservative on environmental issues and the military.
Stenholm said his record shows he’s in tune with the complicated West Texas political mix.
“I represent the strong majority of people in the center of both sides of the aisle,” Stenholm said. “I’ve got 24 years of record; I run on the record. You gotta run on the record, not on the promises. I have a record.”
That record shows a mixed bag. His votes granting approval to Alaskan oil drilling and presidential trade authority agreed with the conservative House leadership. But he also voted against Bush’s economic stimulus package and in favor of federalizing airport security-both in agreement with the liberal Democratic leadership.
Beckham replies that Stenholm’s record deserves scrutiny and will be found wanting by West Texas voters.
“The only way to judge is by my opponent’s voting record,” Beckham said. “He’s in an uncomfortable position.”
In what is a strange reversal of national trends toward the center, Stenholm and Beckham have spent their campaign claiming the other is not conservative enough while trying to appeal to the rural vote outside of Abilene and San Angelo.
Both have appeared in ads with tractors and cowboy gear; both have played the national security card.
And both have claimed to be the kind of conservative this gigantic, mainly rural district is looking for.
Tuesday they’ll find out who was more right.