GOP Rep. Will Hurd fights for survival as a centrist in the Trump era

August 13, 2017
In The News

On the second day of a weeklong, 20-event town hall tour of his massive West Texas district, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd was met by dozens of constituents packed into a lecture hall at Sul Ross State University.

The crowd in Alpine, a relatively liberal college town, had the potential to be one of the most hostile to the second-term Republican during the trip, which came as Democrats’ criticism of President Donald Trump was reaching a fever pitch and as Republicans’ frustration with congressional inaction was mounting.

One of the first questions came from two women, a geologist and a biologist, who gave a well-prepared speech about global warming and asked him to join the Climate Solutions Caucus.

Hurd said he wasn’t familiar with the group but acknowledged the reality of climate change. “Here’s the deal: Humans are having an impact on the environment. Period. End of story,” he said. “And so what we do about it is the conversation that we have to have.” He promised to look into the caucus’ work.

Aimee Roberson, the biologist, said after the event that she doesn’t usually vote for Republicans but would consider Hurd, depending on his opponent. 

“He really seemed like he was listening,” she said. “I want to believe him. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Minutes later, Randy Engh, a conservative who works in information technology at Sul Ross, asked a more succinct question: “Sir, tax reform — when?” Late fall, Hurd said, before expounding on what taxes need to be cut.

After the event, Engh said he’s losing patience with the GOP-controlled Congress, which has so far failed to enact much of its agenda. But despite the fact that Hurd was the only Texas Republican to vote against the House GOP’s health care bill and has regularly criticized Trump, Engh spared his own congressman from that criticism.

“He’s one of the ones that has a little more common sense,” Engh said of Hurd. “He’s being true to himself. That’s the key to Mr. Hurd for me.”

Hurd, 39, isn’t an awe-inspiring public speaker, but his matter-of-fact style gives many the impression that he might actually mean what he says. In town halls, Hurd primarily speaks off the cuff, but even his rehearsed lines — “Building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border,” was a common one on the trip — come out naturally.

It’s an important trait for a politician trying to build a brand as a nonideological pragmatist in a time of hyperpartisanship, and it helps explain why Hurd has so far defied the odds in defending his overwhelmingly Hispanic district, the only true swing seat in Texas.

A mixed-race and mild-mannered former CIA operative with blue-collar roots, Hurd is one of the least Trump-like Republicans in national politics. But he’s having a moment in the limelight right now thanks in no small part to the way his style and stances contrast with the fire-breathing president.

Hurd this year has attracted the attention of Politico and The Washington Postand will soon be featured on NPR’s “This American Life.” The Helotes native was trailed by national and local media during his “DC2DQ” town hall tour, so named because most of the stops were at Dairy Queens in his district.

With protesters disrupting town halls across the country, about two-thirds of the 38 Texans in Congress are forgoing open events during the August recess, according to The Dallas Morning News. Hurd has largely escaped the drama, although not all his stops went as smoothly as in Alpine. Several Hurd critics on Friday caused an ugly scene at a Dairy Queen event in Devine, southwest of San Antonio.

‘Rising star’

Mark Jones, a Rice University political scientist, said Hurd is “seen as a rising star” in some Republican circles. Whether he fulfills that destiny depends on whether he can survive in Texas’ toughest congressional seat and on the direction of the GOP.

If the party continues its rightward march, there would be little room for moderates like Hurd in a statewide race. But if Texas Republicans change course to appeal to the state’s increasingly young and diverse population — or if a “wake-up election” forces them to — Hurd could be their man, Jones said.

“If Republicans alienate Latinos and millennial Anglos,” Jones said, “then they’re really going to need the Will Hurds of the world to pull them out.”

Hurd said he’s comfortable in that role.

“I’m the one that’s the vanguard in trying to change and expose more people to our thinking and our philosophy,” he told the American-Statesman during one of the long stretches between stops on his tour. “The rest of the state of Texas is going to start looking more and more like the 23rd District, so I’m trying to show a way that we can continue as a force in the state.”

A Democratic challenger hoping to unseat Hurd next year has already emerged: Gina Ortiz Jones, who like Hurd is from the San Antonio area and is leaving a career in intelligence, for the Air Force, to run for Congress.

Other Democrats reportedly considering a run include former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who lost the last two races to Hurd; federal prosecutor Jay Hulings; and Judy Canales, who served in the U.S. Agriculture Department during the Obama administration.

A pending federal court case over whether Texas’ district maps are racially discriminatory could change the game at any moment. Any change to the 23rd Congressional District, Jones said, would almost certainly be to the advantage of Democrats.

‘How you woo people’

Nearing the end of a long drive to Presidio, a border town south of Marfa, Hurd emerged from the cabin of an RV, asked a staffer to play a song on a portable speaker and set up an iPhone on a small tripod.

“Morning, everybody. Happy Monday,” Hurd said into the camera, bopping along to the music. “That’s my boy Robert Earl Keen, ‘I Gotta Go,’ because we got to. Day 2, DC2DQ, thanks for everybody who joined. Make sure you like and share this.”

Hurd’s prodigious use of social media is a new trick to aid an old strategy: personally connecting with as many voters as possible.

The 23rd Congressional District, which stretches over two time zones, 29 counties and 820 miles of Texas-Mexico border, doesn’t make it easy. But its near-50/50 partisan split makes it necessary.

Thanks to gerrymandering, most House members represent districts that are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, leading them to worry less about persuading centrists who vote only in November and more about appealing to the smaller number of party die-hards who dominate primaries.

Hurd doesn’t have that luxury. He credits his success in 2016 to his constituent outreach efforts.

“Everybody said, ‘It takes a Hispanic to beat a Hispanic.’ Then they said, after I won the first time, ‘There’s no way a black dude could win in a Hispanic district.’ And then they said, ‘You shouldn’t spend time in areas where you’re never going to change people’s hearts and minds,’” Hurd said. “When you get down and you talk to people and you talk about issues they care about and they come to trust you, that’s how you woo people.”

Why has so much of that wooing occurred in Dairy Queens? “In every rural town, there’s a Dairy Queen, and so it’s nice. They’re always big places,” Hurd said. “And who doesn’t like a cool treat on a hot day?” (His order: Hungr-Buster with cheese and a small dipped cone.)

Hurd said that although he works well with the administration in Washington, Trump’s words make it more difficult for him to reach constituents in West Texas.

“There is a level of cooperation and action that is really good. Some of the rhetoric is unhelpful because it puts up further barriers,” he said. “We should be talking about what unites us, not what divides us, because way more unites us.”

‘Not just our congressman’

Introducing Hurd at the Bean Cafe, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara gushed over the congressman for his help securing a presidential permit to rebuild the Presidio-Ojinaga International Rail Bridge, which has been closed since a 2008 fire damaged it.

“You’re like family to us. You’re not just our congressman,” Guevara said.

She was followed by Mayor John Ferguson, who was similarly enthusiastic.

“We want to work, but we just need a few tools,” Ferguson said of what the bridge reopening could do for his city.

The praise from two Democratic officials hearkened back to the politics of yesteryear, when congressmen were eager to tout the slice of pork-barrel spending they were able to bring home and small-town officials were happy to thank the rainmaker, regardless of party.

After winning a majority in 2010, U.S. House Republicans banned the practice of doling out earmarks — special projects that often went to the districts of powerful representatives or those the leadership needed to win over for tight votes — after they had become a symbol of Washington corruption and waste. (The bridge reconstruction, funded by a U.S. Transportation Department grant, is technically not a budgetary earmark, and Hurd was primarily involved in securing the White House green light for the project, not the funding.)

Jones, the political scientist, said it’s no accident that Republicans have largely held off on attacking Hurd for such behavior.

“Many Republicans grudgingly accept his freelancing in the center of the political spectrum because they realize if he doesn’t do it, it will be a Democratic seat,” Jones said. “Texas Republicans and activists cut him quite a bit of slack. They would not cut a Republican in a ruby-red district so much slack.”

One of those activists was at the Bean Cafe that morning. Todd Beckett, the Presidio County GOP chairman, came with a printed-out message for Hurd to deliver to his “peers in Washington.”

“The spurious attacks on President Trump must stop,” he wrote about the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election. “We have been patient and we have been law abiding and we have cast legal votes to elect a Republican Congress, then a Republican Senate and finally a Republican President.”

Beckett declined to say whether he thought Hurd was part of the problem but said he was suspicious of everyone in Washington.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in Republicans right now,” he said.

As a former CIA official, Hurd hasn’t shied away from agreeing with his former employer’s conclusion about the election — that Russia intervened to aid Trump — and he doesn’t plan to shy away from criticizing Trump when the president’s needs clash with those of his district.

“The way I look at this, we don’t elect an emperor, we elect a president,” he said. “Just like under the last administration, I agree when I agree, and I disagree when I disagree.”