EL PASO — A San Antonio native and former CIA agent is trying to break through in the only region in this Republican state where congressional Democrats hold a steady grip: Texas’ border with Mexico.
But predicting whether Will Hurd, who lost a Republican primary bid for the same seat four years ago, will prevail against U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, is as tasking as guessing where someone in this sprawling tossup district resides.
The 23rd Congressional District includes almost 25 percent of the Lone Star State’s land, all or a part of 29 counties, two time zones, about 800 miles of border and two major population centers: El Paso and Bexar counties. It is also a seat that has changed hands twice in two general election contests, and it is one of only nine congressional districts in which voters favored Mitt Romney over President Obama in 2012 but elected a Democrat to Congress.
“I learned long ago you run unopposed or you run scared,” said Gallego, 52, who is in his first term in Congress after serving 11 terms in the Texas House. He added, “By the nature of the district, it is a competitive race.”
A campaign spokesman for Hurd, 36, said that the candidate was not available for an interview. But Hurd has said that the district is tired of career politicians and that the House could benefit from his credentials. “There is nobody in the 435 members with my experience in intelligence and national security,” Hurd told The Big Bend Sentinel in May.
Hurd lost the 2010 primary election to Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who then defeated U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Democrat, by about 5 percentage points. Canseco lost to Gallego in the 2012 general election by a similar margin. In a rematch, Hurd upended Canseco in the May runoff.
Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist who worked for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the district before its boundaries were redrawn, said that Hurd’s positions align with Tea Party values. Though that could be a benefit for Republicans in most of the state, it would work against Hurd in his congressional bid, Strother said. He cited Gallego’s membership in the Blue Dog Coalition, which bills itself as representing the center of the U.S. House.
“Pete has been very supportive of pro-economic policies, the oil and gas industry in particular, which provides a lot of jobs in that district,” he said. “The current political environment with the current anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant — be they legal or undocumented — rhetoric from the Republican Party, combined with who the Tea Party chose to face him, is really advantageous for Pete.”
Hurd, according to his campaign website, does not stray far on similar issues, however. He also supports “decreasing the regulatory burdens facing those creating and expanding businesses” and “protecting our economic future by balancing our budget and simplifying our tax code.”
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist worked as a press secretary for Kay Bailey Hutchison, a former U.S. senator, said what Hurd had in his corner was the lack of faith voters have in their elected officials in Washington.
“Gallego is an incumbent, and being an incumbent at this time when congressional approval ratings are so low in a district like this, it’s a dangerous place to be in,” he said.
Strother said the state Republican Party’s newly adopted platform could hurt Hurd in the border district, though Strother added it might not be easy for Democrats to directly tie Hurd to it. That platform favors eliminating in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and banning so-called sanctuary cities, local governments that prevent local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws. It also eliminated a call for a national guest-worker program.
Mackowiak said labeling every Republican as an extremist is an easy plot for Democrats seeking to persuade Hispanics to vote for a Democrat.
Hurd “probably had no role in how the platform was developed. It was developed by activists,” Mackowiak said. “I think there is a little bit of an oversimplification in that Republicans are going back to Tea Party and hardline.”
Although the platform is nonbinding, Gallego said that he believed district voters may expect Hurd to distance himself from his Republican colleagues who supported the immigration plank.
“That platform is a statement of principles that its candidates are expected to abide by,” he said. “I think it becomes incumbent upon a candidate to essentially disavow some of the things that are in that party platform.
Otherwise I think the assumption is that you are a true believer.” On his site, Hurd talks about “making border security, countering drug traffickers and fighting cyber criminals a national intelligence priority.”
Mackowiak said a party platform could be “a headache” but added that it has never decided a race. Instead, Hurd’s success could hinge on how successful he is in reaching out to potential voters.
“The question is going to be: Are the Republicans going to come in for Hurd?” Mackowiak said. “He’s less well-known and wasn’t expected to win his primary. It’s going to take some time to reintroduce himself.”
But he starts with a clean slate, Mackowiak added, instead of having to change minds, as Canseco would have had to after losing the last election.
Another issue is that Gallego can use his Hispanic heritage in the border district as an advantage. Republicans have made a concerted effort to attract Hispanics, who have traditionally voted for Democrats, and convince them that the Republican Party’s positions on abortion and taxes are in step with their own beliefs. The district is about 69 percent Hispanic, according to the Texas Legislative Council’s 2012 data.
“I am sure he’s going to do a number of ‘wink, wink, he’s not Hispanic’ efforts, but we’ll see how that plays out,” Mackowiak said, adding that Hurd can win those independent voters over with some effort. “If you get to meet Will, you see he’s an impressive young guy, he’s got good experience, he’s very genuine, he wants to listen.”
Gallego said he does not know how that will play into his strategy, if at all. But he joked that there was nothing he could do about his ethnicity.
“The fact that I am Latino is not a secret. There’s not much I can do about that,” he said. “It is what it is. I think people know that my last name ends in a vowel. What can I tell you?”