Two lawyers, two doctors and an ex-CIA officer are all banking that public displeasure over health care legislation, anxiety about the economy and general discontent with the federal government will put Congressional District 23 back in the GOP column in November.
In 2006, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez wrested the Southwest Texas seat away from 13-year Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla, six months after a U.S. Supreme Court opinion carved new boundaries for the district. The territory of the 23rd is vast — more than one candidate joked that it encompasses two time zones and three climates — and extends from pockets of San Antonio to a corner of El Paso to cover all of Big Bend National Park and roughly 600 miles of the state’s Mexican border. But most of the population (which is 65 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 census) lies in Bexar County.
At a Bexar County Republican Businesswomen’s Luncheon and a Medina County GOP candidate forum on Feb. 11, the Republican candidates said the public is ready for “citizen legislators instead of career politicians,” that voters want representatives “who will actually do what they say when they started and not turn into whatever they turn into up there” and that they feel like their “voices aren’t being heard on either side of the aisle."
Laredo-born and San Antonio-based lawyer and businessman Francisco “Quico“ Canseco, who has run, and lost, in the district’s Republican primary before, said his past experience adds to the strength of his campaign, which is “very smart, very targeted, very calculated” this time around.
Will Hurd, fresh off a nine-and-a-half-year stint in the CIA, said he was motivated to run because he was “shocked” at elected officials’ “lack of interest in or grasp of the issues” during the congressional briefings he gave, noting that a senior member of the House intelligence committee once asked him the difference between a Sunni and a Shia Muslim.
San Antonio doctor Robert Lowry, who described himself as the “guy on the side of the soccer fields or the football fields trying to get all the other parents awake during the year saying our government is taking over way too much,” said he has the “foundational morals” to make a good congressman. Lowry has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson.
Mike Kueber, who brands himself as a “pragmatic conservative,” said he hopes his four opponents will split the primary voters who share their “very far-right view.” The retired USAA regulations and claims lawyer collected 700 signatures to get on the ballot and said he’s running because “both sides are so stuck in their ideological purity that they won’t work out a position,” so nothing ever gets done in Congress. Kueber, who doesn’t accept campaign contributions over $200 (the Federal Election Commission limit is $2,400 per individual donor), said his candidacy is “an experiment as to whether or not you actually have to have money” to win.
The only candidate who lives outside of San Antonio is Joseph "Doc" Gould, an Alpine-based doctor. Gould, whose YouTube videos on his campaign site indicate he might feel at home shouting about government loans on a late-night infomercial, said he's running because he believes that the federal government should have to balance its checkbook like everyone else. Another one of his core principles, he said, is energy independence: Americans should “drill, drill, drill, drill,” until the country is no longer dependent on foreign oil.
None of the candidates have held statewide public office before, but all of them argue that’s precisely what will appeal to voters in this anti-politics-as-usual election cycle.
Of the five, Canseco, who has the backing of the conservative establishment, and Hurd, who Monday announced he had the endorsement of the San Antonio Express-News, are the clear frontrunners. Each is equally upbeat about his prospects. Canseco, who said his opponents have made his bid "a little bit more difficult," said he remains “very confident and strong” about his campaign despite the competition. Hurd said his career in the CIA taught him the value of being underestimated: “Our campaign is Hannibal, and we’re coming over the Pyrenees and the Alps, and people don’t know we have elephants with us."
Canseco and Hurd also happen to be the only two candidates to file campaign finance records electronically with the elections commission. As of the latest reporting period, Hurd has about $70,000 on hand to Canseco’s $90,000. Lowry, who made a paper filing, has raised about $14,000 but has $865 on hand. Gould and Kueber said their records were not available because they have not met the $5,000 filing threshold.
In its 2006 redistricting decision, the Supreme Court identified the 23rd as a “Latino opportunity district,” something Canseco pointed out when he described the “elephant in the room” — that many Republicans think a candidate won’t be able to beat Rodriguez in the general election without a Hispanic surname. “The 23rd is a Hispanic district and it is cut for a Hispanic candidate, whether that candidate is an independent, blue party, red party, Democrat Party, Republican Party,” Canseco said. “The district isn’t cut for an Anglo to win. It’s not designed that way scientifically. It’s like trying to mix salt and mud in order to get gold.” If any other GOP candidate won the primary, Canseco said, it would be a “Pyrrhic victory,” adding that if he came out on top, the national Republican Party would contribute to winning the district in November.
The 32-year-old Hurd, who typically displays an easy-going, what-you-see-is-what you-get affability, bristled at the assertion that his Anglo-sounding name might be a liability in the general election. “The Hispanic population is no different from any population. You talk about the issues they care about, you have better ideas and be likeable — period,” Hurd said. “The people who ask [whether it takes a Hispanic to beat a Hispanic] don’t understand San Antonio. They don’t understand the border. They don’t understand West Texas.”
Rodriguez, who served in the Texas House for 10 years and in Congress from 1997 to 2004 before winning his current seat, said "anything could happen," but he is undeterred by the number of Republicans lined up to challenge him in November because of the close ties he’s maintained with the district. “The beauty is that I don’t just campaign through campaign time; it’s an ongoing process. We’re always out there,” Rodriguez said. “I go to every single county quarterly, and that’s not just during the campaign. I come home every single week — more than any other member of Congress.”