WASHINGTON — For the first time in 24 years, Pete Gallego is not legislating. And it's obvious he misses it.
After decades spent as a Democratic fixture at the Texas Capitol, Gallego served a single term in Congress, where he lost re-election last fall to U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio. In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Thursday, Gallego said he's determined to take back the seat in a rematch.
“There’s no such thing as anybody who can’t be beat; everybody can be beat,” Gallego said. “It’s a question of how hard you’re willing to work. It’s a question of the environment, the surroundings. Frankly, there’s a lot of issues with timing.”
But Gallego's freshman rival is leveraging the benefits of incumbency — most obviously, fundraising — and mounting a stronger campaign than last time around.
In 2014, “voters were very aware of both candidates and decided they had had enough of Mr. Gallego’s long career in politics, which produced zero results for the district,” Hurd political consultant Josh Robinson wrote in an email.
Texas' 23rd District is undoubtedly in play. It's rated a toss-up by the non-partisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. It frequently ping-pongs between the two parties and is one of the most sensitive House seats in the nation in a turbulent political environment.
And both Democrats and Republicans desperately want it. As a young black Republican in Congress, Hurd is a huge boon to the GOP. And Democrats likely can't win back the House without winning there; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a weekend interview with The Texas Tribune that the party is “fully invested in Pete Gallego.”
The district's enormity — it spans 800 miles of border and includes the San Antonio and El Paso media markets — means the next year will be an endurance test between the two men.
Hurd is working the district hard and diligently documenting his travel, specifically at small town Dairy Queens. But it’s his amplified fundraising that is most pronounced cycle-to-cycle; Hurd currently has about a $550,000 cash-on-hand advantage over Gallego.
The Democrat shrugged off the disparity on Thursday, arguing that much of Hurd's fundraising came from political action committees. "PACs don’t vote in the district, people do," Gallego said.
And he said the point of having ample campaign cash for TV ads is to "make sure people know who you are," which Gallego argued is more of a problem for Hurd than for him.
"The luxury for me is that I’ve spent already several millions of dollars across the district getting people to know who I am," he said. "... So, my name ID is really, really high. I don’t have some of those issues. Will has to introduce himself to the voters again."
The Hurd camp disagrees with that assessment.
“Considering more voters chose Will Hurd in the last election, I don't think name ID is a problem,” Robinson said.
Voters are clearly in for a bruising rematch.
Gallego was a top and early recruit for House Democrats, who ended up licking their wounds after the 2014 midterms. He didn’t declare his 2016 candidacy until the spring of 2015. But when he did, he frequently pointed to depressed turnout as the culprit for his defeat.
He said he believes voters in the district turn out in bigger numbers in presidential years, and that he will have an easier time getting across the finish line next year. He's also hoping for a little help from Donald Trump.
"I couldn’t ask for anything better," he said of the notion of Trump as the Republican presidential nominee.
Gallego's case against Hurd is that the congressman is "not an independent thinker. He's not a leader."
"One of my biggest disappointments in watching Will is that Will tends to have a 96 percent straight Republican, straight party voting record,” Gallego said. “He’s a follower."
Hurd's camp says they're "shocked Mr. Gallego would like to discuss Will’s time in Congress versus his.”
Countered Robinson: “Gallego passed zero bills during his time in Congress while Will has had two bills signed into law in a bipartisan way. The record speaks for itself.”
The barbs between the two camps are inevitable, and both candidates are already trying to posture themselves as moderates while portraying their rival as an extremist. Whichever of them wins will have to tack close to the middle to hang onto the seat.
When asked if he had any advice for a Texas legislator considering a federal run, Gallego said only those who are intensely partisan will feel at home in Washington.
“If you want to come fight the good fight to make a difference for people and to try to get the government back on track, where we govern from the middle and not from the extremes," he said, "then understand that it’s a lonely road, and you’re going to have a hard time.”