When SCHIP came to Crawford Ranch

Few people would be surprised to learn that in 2004 President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) by 36 points in Texas’s 17th congressional district, home to the president’s Crawford Ranch. After all, Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. But how many people know that the president’s own representative in Congress is Chet Edwards, a moderate Democrat, whose surprise reelection in the super-red 17th district in 2004 had everything to do with SCHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program? With the president’s veto of SCHIP now facing an override effort, the 17th provides a cautionary tale for those seeking to restore the GOP’s congressional majority in 2008.

In the summer of 2004 it appeared imminent that then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R) plan to oust five veteran Democrats by redrawing their districts was marching toward a clean sweep. Our organization, Vote Kids, which supports more investments in children, decided to track whether children’s health was powerful enough to emerge as an election issue in one of these undeniably conservative districts. Conventional wisdom had it that running against cuts in government social programs was not an issue that could trump the standard GOP “family values” agenda. We chose the 17th because of Crawford Ranch’s presence and because of the GOP candidate’s record on children while she chaired a powerful committee in Texas’s Republican-controlled legislature.

 Her campaign was well-financed. Her many television ads slammed partial-birth abortions and gays adopting children. They showcased her efforts to streamline government, which purportedly saved Texas taxpayers $1 billion. Her ads were effective: Our late-summer poll showed her leading the popular Edwards by four points. But when, during the same poll, people were asked if it would make a difference in their support knowing the billion dollars “saved” was the result of pushing 150,000 children from Texas SCHIP and 17,000 pregnant women from Texas Medicaid, Edwards took the lead 45-42, a swing of seven points. Most ominous for the challenger, the swing among white GOP women was a 13-point drop in support.

Edwards’s own polls surely revealed the same concerns among district voters. After all, Texas already had more than 1 million uninsured children — more than 27 other states combined. One of his ads featured a mother and her child. She recounted that after her husband died in a fire the family lost its health insurance and that her daughter’s existing illness was no longer covered. She wanted to continue working but her income was too high for Medicaid — but not for SCHIP, which saved the day. Look into my little girl’s eyes, she said, and tell her that she’s not worthy of being given a helping hand. That’s why she was voting for Edwards, a SCHIP supporter.

Edwards became the new family-values candidate. His opponent’s “streamlining” now seemed unkind to children. Edwards won the election by four points. He benefited greatly by a large GOP crossover vote, especially among women. DeLay’s four other incumbent Democrat targets lost by between 10 and 26 points. Our post-election poll found that 87 percent of 17th district voters believed government has a moral responsibility to make sure every child has the opportunity to succeed. When the Texas legislature convened in the winter of 2005 following the election, Republicans promptly introduced a bill to restore the SCHIP cuts.

The president, in his veto of SCHIP, and his congressional allies may well be taking what they believe is a principled stand in support of their deep anti-government ideology. But at least in the president’s own congressional district the ideology does not seem to run so deep.

Petit is president of Vote Kids.