Cut through the routine GOP primary rhetoric about government spending and job creation and a narrative about the new and old guard emerges in the runoff in Texas' 23rd congressional district.
Will Hurd, who is 32 years old, has just returned to the district from a nine-year stint in the CIA. At 60, Francisco “Quico” Canseco, has spent more than 30 years as a lawyer, businessman and banker in South Texas. He has also run for the Republican nomination in the 23rd before: in 2008, against Lyle Larson, who then lost to incumbent Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in the general election.
On March 2, Hurd and Canseco squeezed out of a five-candidate field with only a 400-vote distance between them. Hurd, who overcame a lag in early-voting returns to become the frontrunner that night, won 12 of 17 counties in the district where Republican primaries were held. Some attributed that upswing to Hurd’s ties to Texas A&M University, where he was student body president. But Canseco won Bexar, the district's most populated county by far (it would be possible for a candidate to win all counties but that one and still lose the election).
Canseco has the support of dyed-in-the-wool social conservatives and is counting on the National Republican Congressional Committee to take a strong interest in his possible general election bid against Rodriguez. Hurd, who recently secured the endorsements of Larson and Robert Lowry, the candidate who finished third in the primary, with 22 percent of the vote, says Republicans in Washington will come around to his candidacy.
Just as important as ideology is the demographic question that has plagued the GOP since it first began trying to snag the 23rd back from Rodriguez in 2007: Can a candidate with an Anglo-sounding name win in a district that’s 60 percent Hispanic? Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says “chief party strategists” in Washington believe the answer is no, and for that reason hope Canseco wins. Calling the seat “one of the majority-makers for Republicans in November,” Wasserman says his publication currently rates the 23rd as “likely Democratic” in the fall — though it may re-evaluate that assessment based on who comes out on top April 13.
At a Bexar County Young Republicans debate in San Antonio last week, the moderator, former KENS 5-TV anchor Chris Marrou posed that question to the candidates. Hurd, who said in an earlier conversation that it was “condescending to the Hispanic population to say that they will only vote for someone with a Hispanic surname,” mentioned his biracial background — his mother is white and his father is black — and then said he wasn’t worried because “those who speak Spanish can speak English, too,” an apparent reference to Canseco’s previous point that he could speak “Spanish, Tex-Mex and barrio.”
In an interview after the debate, Canseco took issue with Hurd’s assertion about Hispanic voters: “If he really believes that, it shows a certain naivete on his part. We all wish it were so, but unfortunately it’s not.” He continued: “You have to be able to not just say ‘Yo hablo español’ with an English accent — you have to be able to capture all the nuance of a community, the nuances of a complex society, and customs, and mores. And if you don’t do that, then you are an outsider.”
The strength of Canseco’s crossover appeal to Hispanics has never been tested, however, because he hasn’t been able to win a Republican primary — something Wasserman points out. And Hurd says he isn’t concerned about getting the backing of Republicans on the national level: “When we show them we’re going to win this thing, I’m sure we’ll get some support.” He adds that his campaign will soon “pull some names out that will really shock [observers] ... national, highly recognized, very senior former folks in the party on the state level and the national level.”
The question of border security in a district that shares a 600-mile boundary with Mexico was another flashpoint at the debate. Hurd said he would “chase [the drug cartels] like he did the Taliban and al-Qaida” and develop a border caucus to handle the narcotics trade in Mexico.
Canseco, who said his extensive business experience in Mexico gives him the right perspective on the issue, disputed that there was any similarity between the problems in the Middle East and those in Mexico: “You cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, compare Mexico with what’s happening with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq," he told me. "It’s like talking about rocks and talking about bananas — not even apples and bananas. [It's] totally different.”
Obama-lite vs. the lapdog
Canseco readily admits he doesn’t have the “secret agent guy” panache of his opponent. But he’s been in the “real world digging shovels and turning dirt, building buildings, resurrecting banks” for the past three decades.
“Those are experiences that you can’t get just going out in the field and deciding who dies and who lives and going out there and trading information and sending bullets — we don’t know what’s happened there — that’s not the same thing,” he says.
Hurd counters Canseco’s claims of business experience by noting that he has “real” small business experience through his family’s working-class background: “I know what it’s like to live from day to day. And what real small businesses are having to deal with.”
Whether from his experience in the CIA or not, Hurd does display a certain charisma. The San Antonio Express News, who endorsed Hurd's candidacy, said he has the "easy grace you look for in politicians," and he caught the eye of Texas Monthly's Paul Burka, who called him "a very impressive person." And his comfort in front of a crowd was on display last week at a Bexar County Republicans Debate in San Antonio when, after taking the stage following a candidate in another race who boasted Chuck Norris’ endorsement, he joked that while he might not have the Walker, Texas Ranger star’s nod, he had once, if you believe in internet memes, done the impossible: kicked Chuck Norris’ ass.
“He got a little out of hand at an embassy, so I had to kick him out,” Hurd said.
Critics say that charisma distracts from Hurd’s lack of experience. Mike Kueber, a former United Services Automobile Association claims and regulations lawyer who finished fourth in the March primary, likened him to a familiar Democratic politician who faced similar accusations during his presidential bid. “He’s Obama-lite,” says Kueber, who has endorsed Canseco. “He’s very similar to an Obama. The racist thing that jumps out is that his dad’s black and his mom is white. But the other things are that he’s incredibly under-qualified and the media loves him.” Kueber adds that despite this, and in light of Lowry’s endorsement, he’d “be surprised if Hurd doesn’t win it.”
Lowry, a Southside doctor who ran a libertarian-style campaign that earned the support of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside, drew fire near the close of the primary for saying the government didn’t have the authority to regulate drugs. Canseco said he didn’t win Lowry's endorsement because he didn't agree that marijuana should be legalized, and that he refused to say the Patriot Act was unconsitutional.
Lowry contests that, saying that in choosing between the candidates, he was primarily concerned with their views on the Constitution and didn't fully agree with what either Hurd or Canseco had to say. The latter didn’t make the cut, Lowry says, because he “actually said, sometimes your social concerns butt up against the constitution, and … when it’s something he wants to push through, you can throw the Constitution under the bus just to get what you need to go through. “
“If we get rid of Ciro, who a lot of people view as Nancy Pelosi’s lapdog,” he says, “Are we going to get somebody else who is just the Republicans' lapdog? That’s not what we want. We want somebody who’s beholden to the voters here in our district.”