WASHINGTON - A congressional rematch may be nigh in southwest Texas.
National Democrats still reeling from their midterm clobbering are intent on picking up seats in 2016, and their eyes already are on Texas’ only competitive congressional district, the 23rd.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, won the seat by a mere 2,422 votes last November. The Democrats’ top recruit is the man Hurd ousted – former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine – and the sense in Washington is that more likely than not, he’ll jump into the campaign.
The head of House Democratic campaign efforts said as much in a Tuesday statement.
“We’re excited about his potential candidacy, and confident that he would run a strong campaign with the tailwinds of a more favorable electorate in 2016 at his back,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico.
About a week after the election, Democrats floated Gallego as a top recruit, and the one-term congressman did not rule out a rematch in a Tuesday phone interview.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to, Republican and Democrats, think that [there will be a] different electorate in 2016, and I don’t know anyone who thinks that the last election was a referendum on me or my performance as a congressman,” he said. “But having said that, it’s a little early.”
“I haven’t gotten to that bridge yet, but I will cross that bridge when I get there,” he added.
The district is a sprawling, hotly contested swath of Texas stretching from San Antonio to El Paso, including about 800 miles of the Mexican border. Because there is no Senate race looming and Texas is a safe Republican bet in presidential politics, the would-be House rematch is on track to be the most exciting federal race in the state by the fall of 2016.
The seat has flipped four of the last five cycles, switching columns each time either party made gains.
Gallego points to the 2014 environment as the culprit for his own defeat. "It was the perfect storm combination of an unpopular president, a gubernatorial campaign that didn’t go well and poor turnout," Gallego said of what went wrong for him in November.
This seat is among the lowest-hanging fruit for the national Democrats. Several Democratic operatives indicated they strongly believe that Gallego will follow through on a run, but cautioned that recruits back out at the last minute for an assortment of reasons.
"I am getting a lot of phone calls from elected officials and people in the business community and activists and citizens who would like me to run," Gallego said of the recruitment efforts.
A Texas Republican operative pointed out that a likely part of Gallego's appeal is that, as a former member, he could potentially clear the field and avoid a contentious primary. The House Democratic campaign arm last cycle had little tolerance for competitive nomination fights, and often strongly discouraged weaker candidates from running.
Gallego has not traveled to Washington since he cast his last votes in December. These days, he practices law and says he is enjoying time with his family. He declined to say when he might make up his mind.
Candidates often enter campaigns at the beginning of a quarter to maximize fundraising hauls for that period. Typically, announcements occur in early April, July or, at the very latest, October of the off year.
But if it happens, this comeback effort won't be a walk. National Republicans indicate they will fight hard to hold the seat.
"Voters had their say in November and rejected the Obama-Gallego agenda," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Zach Hunter wrote in an email. "If Pete Gallego is the best the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] can do, 2016 is going to be another tough year for Democrats."
The incumbent will not make this easy for Gallego and the Democrats, either.
Before he took office, Hurd toured all of the district's 29 counties. And on his way to the Capitol on his first day on the job in January, Hurd admitted that the future was on his mind.
"Re-election has already started," he said.