Will Hurd Isn’t Going Anywhere

February 24, 2020
In The News

After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee commissioned what came to be known as “the autopsy” report. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too,” the more formally titled Growth and Opportunity Project found. “We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities.”

Seven years later, there is just one black Republican in the House, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas. And he announced last August that he would not seek re-election.

“I believe that if the Republican party in America doesn’t start looking like America and appealing to all Americans, there won’t be a Republican party in America,” Hurd said in an interview last month.

It’s a point he’s made repeatedly. You can find him reciting the line—or some Texas-themed variation on it—at least half a dozen times: in profiles and videosinterviews and speeches.

Hurd—a 42-year-old former CIA analyst who has served as the representative for Texas’ 23rd congressional district since 2015—has ample reason to worry.

“Donald Trump, in winning the election in 2016, sort of gave the impression, ‘Hey, Republicans can continue to not do great with voters who are African American, or Latino, but still get by by really doing quite well with white voters, particularly non-college-educated white voters,’” Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson told me. “And so I think for Republicans, some of the longer term demographic concerns that had existed before the 2016 election, those concerns haven’t gone away. But when you are winning, you are less introspective than when you are losing.”

According to exit polls, Obama won black, Hispanic, aged 18 to 29, and female voters in 2012 by 87, 44, 23, and 11 points, respectively. Four years later, Trump lost to a much weaker candidate in the same categories by 81, 38, 19, and 13 points. The trend continued, or worsened, for down-ballot Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections.

The Trump campaign, for its part, is working hard to improve these numbers in 2020—specifically among black voters. The president routinely touts record-low African-American unemployment numbers, and his recent Super Bowl ad and State of the Union address illustrate a far more potent pitch to black voters—one of economic growth, educational attainment, and criminal justice reform—than his 2016 “what the hell do you have to lose?

South Carolina’s Sen. Tim Scott—the lone black Republican in the Senate—declared on Fox News that Trump’s black support will increase 50 percent in November, from 8 percent in 2016 to 12 percent in 2020. “And that is game over,” he added. “President Trump is not just talking a good game, he is walking a good game.”

“Every day Americans see the benefits of President Trump’s efforts to revitalize and invest in minority communities,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso—who used to work for Scott—told me. “Whether it’s record low unemployment for Black, Latino, and Asian Americans, Opportunity Zones, historic HBCU funding, and criminal justice reform, voters are noticing our President’s incredible accomplishments.”

The message is strong, but the messenger is flawed. A candidate who took out a full-page ad calling for the death penalty in the Central Park Five case and played a central role in the dissemination of racist “birther” theories against Barack Obama could prove a tough sell to these voters.*

Only 14 percent of black voters approved of the the president’s job performance in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week, and just 7 percent said they’d be enthusiastic about or comfortable with a Trump second term. Depending on who emerges as his Democratic opponent, Trump could score between seven and 16 percent of the black vote, according to the survey.

Hurd didn’t try to sugarcoat this.

“The three largest growing groups of voters: communities of color, women with a college degree in the suburbs, and people under the age of 29. Those are three areas where our brand, the Republican brand, is not the greatest, right? … I would say that it’s not necessarily because of principles and theories, it’s because there’s this notion that we don’t care about them, right?”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “if you’re under the age of 40, in a lot of places, you have to whisper that you’re a Republican.”

Demographics are not destiny, of course, and a person’s various identities do not inherently lead to one political persuasion or another. But a party whose congressional delegation is about 96 percent white and 90 percent male might run into some issues convincing Americans who don’t belong to either of those groups that it cares about them.

The simplest explanation for this uniformity would be the aforementioned polling figures. Republican voters nowadays tend to be older, whiter, and more male than their Democratic counterparts—and the GOP’s slate of elected officials reflect that. But there are a few more factors at play.

“Part of it is that there hasn’t been a lot of turnover in the House Republican Conference,” National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Bob Salera said. (41 percent of the House Republican Conference has either left or announced their retirement from the Hill since Trump was inaugurated, but political winds have led many of those seats to be filled by Democrats.) “We have a lot of good members that have been here for a long time. Things are starting to change a little bit.”

Soltis Anderson floated a few additional theories. Gerrymandering at the state level has created—in many cases—districts consisting primarily of either white or non-white voters, and the primary process favors the politically connected. “If you have access to existing networks for donors, consultants, etc., you are more likely to be able to prevail in a hard-fought primary.” 

“In the Republican party,” she added, those existing networks are “all too often white males.”

The party “can’t just continue to let the chips fall where they may and think this is an issue that’s going to solve itself.”

Out of government, but not out of sight.

It seems counterintuitive: Will Hurd has a strategy to reverse these imbalances, but he says he has to leave Congress to enact it.

“This is about taking a message to people that have not heard it before,” he said. “[Out of Congress] I'll have the bandwidth and the time to take a message to places that I haven’t had the bandwidth and the time to do that.

Hurd announced his retirement in early August, writing, “I will keep fighting to remind people why I love America: that we are neither Republican nor Democrat nor Independent; We are better than the sum of our parts.”

The news sent the institutional GOP into a bit of a frenzy. More than 20 Republicans have announced their retirements from the House this cycle, but Hurd’s is different. Demographic optics aside, Hurd was widely considered one of the party’s brightest young stars. And his district—a land mass about the size of Georgia along Texas’ southwestern border—is incredibly competitive. He was the rare politician in this era of polarization who could win over members of both parties.

“Obviously, he represented one of the most closely divided districts in the country,” Salera said. “Texas-23 is the consummate swing district … So it’s a place that’s going to be a fight, regardless of who the Democrat and Republican end up being.”

“The Will Hurd one hurts,” NRCC communications director Chris Pack told me while discussing GOP retirements last fall. 

Hurd was first elected in 2014 by 2,422 votes. That margin grew to 3,051 in 2016, but plummeted to 926 two years later. Many Democrats blamed Beto O’rourke—then running against Sen. Ted Cruz—for Hurd’s final victory. The viral Democratic sensation frequently praised Hurd’s bipartisanship, and the pair even road-tripped to D.C. together after a snowstorm canceled their flights, streaming the trek on Facebook for all to see.

But when I asked Justin Hollis—Hurd’s longtime campaign manager—if he thought his boss would have won again in 2020, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation: “100 percent.”

“Yeah, we would have been fine,” he continued. “I mean look, to say that we would have won by 10 points, like that’s not true … But we always had a great organization and a great team, and we knew what our focus was, and we knew what the path is.”

For Hurd, that path typically involved some ice cream. “I do town halls in Dairy Queens,” Hurd said of what his team coined “D.C. to D.Q.” trips. “Because every County has one, everybody knows where it is, right? Get a cool treat on a hot day. Love Dairy Queen.”

Hurd’s campaigns had an almost “militant” focus on hitting every part of the massive 23rd District, Hollis said. “And it was truly talking mainly to the middle, right? Getting folks who might lean Democrat or who are independent and really just running up the score there … So that was sort of like the recipe of our success. It’s talking to voters that most Republicans don’t traditionally talk to in communities in the district that are largely Hispanic.”

Hollis first linked up with Hurd in 2009, when he was a senior at Texas A&M and saw the future congressman giving a speech on TV commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Aggie Bonfire collapse. Hurd had been student body president a decade earlier, when 12 students died after being trapped under the pile of logs.

“I Googled his name and found out he’s running for Congress, and it was where I was from,” Hollis said, referencing Hurd’s first, failed bid for Congress in 2010. “The same day I graduated, I packed all my stuff up from my apartment, drove home, and the next week just kind of reached out.”

Hurd may not have any more campaigns that need managing (for now), but his partnership with Hollis isn’t over quite yet. On November 14, a video—featuring Hurd—announced the Future Leaders Fund, a super PAC led by Hollis “determined to create a diverse crop of future elected officials to be ambassadors to our party.”

“Future Leaders Fund will help good candidates have the resources to grow the party,” Hurd says in the spot. “In addition to running TV ads, it will also build field programs to grow grassroots support.”

Hurd’s role in the super PAC remains limited as long as he’s in office. And when he leaves his congressional perch in January 2021, he’ll be sacrificing some of his institutional power to drive a message, particularly with power brokers in D.C. that are too often focused on the immediate future. But he has big plans.

“People that run races, pollsters, the people that make all the money off of politics,” Hurd laments, “they come in 90 days before an election.”

“The thing that I've learned representing a 50-50 district, having to take a conservative message to communities that've never heard it, is you gotta show that you care, right? Start there,” Hurd said. “This isn’t rocket science. But it’s hard. It takes effort. It takes time. And it’s not just doing that 90 days before an election.”

To hammer this point home, he recounted a speech he gave at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics last fall. “Couple hundred students there. None of them showed up to hear the black Republican. They wanted to yell at the black Republican,” he remembered. “I said, ‘What’s up Harvard?’ Silence. Everybody sat stony-faced, right? And the moderator even joked, ‘Wow. Hard crowd.’”

“But over time, you get a little chuckle when they laugh at a joke, then they’d clap a few times, and then at the end there was a really great Q&A session and a true competition of ideas.”

“And so that’s what we’re going to do,” he said, snapping back to the present. “Having the bandwidth to do that, having the bandwidth to do that in media, having the bandwidth to do that and travel, and to be able to do that across the country.”

The Future Leaders Fund only had about $36,000 on hand as of its latest Federal Elections Commission filing, with a lot of that money being transferred from Hurd’s own campaign. But there are indications the GOP donor class recognizes the necessity.

“Any kind of effort that is about bringing more diversity to the table, to the voter box, on issues regarding, whether it’s free enterprise, strong national defense, you name it, I'm all for it,” Lisa Wagner, a Chicago-based political fundraiser who has experience and relationships with Republican donors across the country, said. “And I think many, many folks would be, because … elections are about a game of addition. And if Will’s super PAC can help us add more, awesome.”

I pressed Wagner on whether the Republican donor class shared Hurd’s concerns over the future viability of the party. “It’s a concern every election,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, there’s always an autopsy done after every election. Whether it’s running for mayor or running for president. Where, what could we have done better? What does the data say? And where do we need to improve going forward? And so is there a concern? As long as there are elections, and as long as we’re with human beings, there will always be a concern like that.”

Parts of the institutional GOP understand this too. “One of [NRCC Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer’s] stated goals, he’s said this over and over, is to make sure that the Republican conference better represents the diversity of our party,” Salera said. The campaign arm’s Young Guns program—a list of candidates that meet certain campaign benchmarks laid out by the NRCC—is the “most diverse” it’s ever been.

But “the difference between what [Hurd] is doing and what we can do,” Salera continued, “is that we don’t actually get involved in primaries. We don’t spend, we don’t endorse candidates. While we do have a hand in encouraging folks to run, we’re not the ones that are going to get behind them. Groups like Will’s are able to do that and his goals certainly align very well with what our overarching goal is. So we welcome him to join in that effort.”

“There are entities that have focused on this,” Soltis Anderson said, referencing the Republican State Leadership Committee’s Future Majority Project and Rep. Elise Stefanik’s E-PAC, among others. 

But like Stefanik, Soltis Anderson thinks “Will Hurd, having lived through being a member, having been the person whose name was on the ballot, and who has seen what this is all about from the inside, is very uniquely positioned to be a great leader on this stuff.”

Hollis confirmed the group will dip into the primary process—and that it already has, cutting ads for House candidates Wesley Hunt in Texas and Ashley Hinson in Iowa, slamming their Democratic opponents for voting “with Nancy Pelosi and the socialist Squad more than 90 percent of the time” and being a “rubber stamp for a radical liberal agenda."

Future Leaders Fund has no plans to engage in candidate recruitment right now, Hollis said, and the group will not focus on primarying incumbent Republicans. “We’re here to make friends, and that’s why we’re mainly just focusing on opening seats to bring a little bit more life to the party.”

Were there any exceptions?

“Steve King is a different scenario,” Hollis said, responding to my question about the openly racist Republican representing Iowa’s 5th Congressional District. “There are a lot of folks who would love to see him out of Congress. I am one of those. So it would be a badge of honor to have a good candidate, a good Republican candidate take over that seat.”

“Folks like Steve King do not help the party. They don’t help our cause,” Hollis continued. “And every time they say something, we find ourselves having to regroup and address these issues. I mean, it’s not constructive every time someone says something racist or misogynistic and we have to go back and say, ‘well, that’s not really what we think or what we believe, that’s an outlier.’ Maybe it’s time to get rid of an outlier like Steve King.”

“You don’t sound like what we hear from the party.”

The TVs in Hurd’s office were tuned to C-SPAN, not Fox News, when I stopped by a few weeks ago.

“I think I'm fortunate to have come up in politics in the toughest district in the United States of America. Tough primaries, tough generals, right?” Hurd said. “And so a district like mine, you get rewarded by being a problem solver, not a bomb thrower, right? And so if more districts were like mine…”

Hurd has, for better or worse, carved out a role as a “moderate” Republican, one Democrats have come to view as “reasonable.” 

“Even people who were hardcore Democrats—they said they were going to vote for Democrats—they still respected him and liked him,” Hollis told me, referencing some of their campaign polling and research over the years.

“You don’t sound like what we hear from the party,” the moderator of that Harvard event said to Hurd, according to The Crimson’s writeup of the panel. “That’s not the Republican talking points.”

Hurd has repeatedly flouted Republican talking points, and increasingly so in the past year. “The things I disagree with, I speak out about, right?”

He voted to fund the government without money for Trump’s border wall, and for background checks on gun sales. He opposed a ban on openly transgender people serving in the military, and wants to preserve DACA for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. He condemned Trump’s remarks against the Squad as “racist and xenophobic,” and he sharply criticized his withdrawal of troops from Syria. When the president sided with Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s story on election meddling over the United States intelligence community’s, Hurd spoke out in a New York Times op-ed. “Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the C.I.A., I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people,” he wrote. “I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”

“The Republican leader is not my boss. The Speaker of the House is not my boss. The President of the United States is not my boss,” Hurd told me defiantly. “My bosses are the 800,000 people that I represent. And so those are the people that I reflect in my voting record up here.”

“I did this in the last administration, I do this under this administration,” he continued. “I agree when I agree, I disagree when I disagree. And I think this focus on, just because the person that wears your jersey has produced something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s intrinsically good or intrinsically bad.”

Soltis Anderson agreed. “Congressman Hurd, I think, has been uniquely successful at building out an identity for himself that is distinct from the president’s,” she said. “That allows him to support the president when he agrees with him, disagree with the president when he disagrees with him.”

But in perhaps one of the surest signs Hurd’s political career is far from over, he voted in December against both articles of impeachment facing Trump. The congressman from Texas approached the inquiry more thoughtfully than most of his Republican peers on the Intelligence Committee, using his televised speaking time primarily to ask substantive questions of witnesses rather than dismiss the proceedings as a witch hunt or wail about the Democrats’ “sham” process. But ultimately he concluded that, while the inquiry revealed a series of “bungling foreign policy decisions” by the president, it did not present “evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, of bribery or extortion.”

“You can vote against impeachment and still disagree with some of the policies, or some of the behavior,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “Using this process of impeachment is one of the most serious things the House of Representatives can do.”

Righting the ship.

I asked Hurd if there were policy positions Republicans are prioritizing right now that will hurt the party longer-term.

“That are going to hurt us longer term,” he repeated, pausing. “We ultimately have to get legal immigration right, right?”

Hurd was careful to emphasize exactly what he was talking about. “We should be able to streamline legal immigration. Because when you’re at 3.5 percent unemployment, guess what happens: Every industry needs workers. And one way to do that is by streamlining legal immigration. We can do that based on laws and our way of life. And we can secure the border in a smart way, right? We should have 100 percent operational control of our border, right? … So we can get these things right. And so I think that is an issue that has dominated a lot of the national conversation.”

“Most Republicans believe that there is something happening in our environment and man is having an impact on it,” Hurd continued. “But there are thoughtful ways that we can deal with this issue … What’s wild is, because a single Republican may say something about the environment, then that statement gets used to bludgeon all Republicans.”

When that single Republican is the president of the United States, it becomes harder to avoid the bludgeoning. But Hurd didn’t want to talk about Trump.

“There are already things that are going on,” he said, referencing Republican voter support for Dreamers and GOP backing of the Land Water Conservation Fund. “Again, let’s focus on these. Let’s champion, let’s talk about these things that are already being done. That’s how we do this.”

“If Republicans want to win back a younger generation,” Soltis Anderson told me, “they have to demonstrate that there are lots of different ways to be Republican, that there are lots of voices in the party that have different approaches to things. And while we have a core set of issues or principles that we may all tend to coalesce around, that if maybe you stylistically don’t love the way the President tweets, or you have some social or cultural issues with which you disagree with him, having someone who’s out there saying, ‘Look, I get it. A younger generation disagrees with the traditional conservative line on a handful of issues.’ We want to make outreach to them on why we think we’re right. And also let them know that there’s a welcome embrace if there are issues where we’re just going to agree to disagree. But we still want them to be able to come into the fold even if they don’t agree with us on everything.”

I asked Hurd to imagine a hypothetical 2036 world in which the Republican party has been locked out of the White House for 12 straight years. What would have gone wrong?

“If a Republican hasn’t won,” he started, “[it would be] because we did not take our principles and theories and articulate them. We did not demonstrate, we did not show a majority of the country that we cared about them, which prevented them from listening to our principles and theories that have been responsible for a lot of success in this country.”

“You don’t win hearts and minds 90 days before an election. You win hearts and minds two years before the election, right? That’s how you establish trust, and it’s over time. And so 40 years from now when they’re looking back, they would say that, ‘we wish that more people went to communities that had never seen a conservative and talked about these issues.’”

How involved will Hurd—whose name is already being floated for presidential consideration in 2024—be in preventing this worst-case outcome for Republicans? “Will Hurd’s not going anywhere,” Hollis said with a chuckle.