SAN ANTONIO — The Democratic candidate wants to make the election about Donald Trump. The Republican wants nothing to do with his party's presidential nominee.
It’s a familiar dynamic unfolding in many congressional battles across the country, but it is especially pitched in Texas’ 23rd U.S. House district — a swing district with a large Hispanic population that Democrats hope will respond to Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric by returning Democrat Pete Gallego to the seat he lost two years ago.
After eking out a two-point victory in 2014, incumbent freshman Republican Will Hurd knows he's vulnerable.
“I was hesitant to be tough ... on my opponent last time,” Hurd said last month at his campaign kick-off. “But this time I have no qualms about it."
The district perennially alternates between Democratic and Republican congressmen, with no incumbent winning a second term in eight years. “People were saying, ‘Don’t unpack your bags,’” Hurd said last month.
The district is the largest in the state, stretching from San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso. It encompasses much of the state’s Rio Grande border with Mexico, Big Bend National Park and hundreds of West Texas hamlets, including Marfa.
It is highly competitive, flipping with every national congressional wave of the past decade. No fewer than five men have represented the district over the past 10 years. In 2008, district voters cast a majority of ballots for President Obama, but four years later, it was Mitt Romney country.
In 2012, Hurd ousted Gallego by about 2,400 votes.
The competitive history, and an action-packed presidential race at the top of the ticket, have Democrats feeling confident this year. Trump is largely the root of that optimism.
“The truth is that Trump is a local issue wherever you go,” Gallego said in a recent interview over lunch at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio. “He’s your biggest local issue because wherever you go, people are talking about him.”
Gallego, 54, served a single term in the U.S. House from 2013-2015. In his first race, he ousted now-former U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco from office by a 9,100-vote margin.
Before Congress, Gallego was a stalwart at the Texas Capitol. He represented Alpine in the state House of Representatives from 1991-2012 and was the chairman of the Democratic caucus from 1991-2001. Gallego was a serious contender for the state House speakership in late 2008.
Hurd, who said he does not support Trump but has left open the possibility of voting for him in November, is trying to keep the race centered on contrasts between his time in Congress and that of his predecessor. He regularly touts that he has seen four of his bills signed into law, while Gallego notched zero during his one term in Congress.
“All Pete Gallego wants to talk about is Donald Trump because he wants to hide the fact that he was a complete failure when he was in Congress,” Hurd said by phone Thursday in between stops on a tour of district Dairy Queens. Gallego, Hurd added, “didn’t do anything.”
Hurd came to Congress in 2015 a relative unknown, but he proved an adept fundraiser once in office and powerful Republicans took a liking to him. They made clear his re-election is a top party priority, stressing his background as a former CIA officer and implicitly acknowledging he added diversity as one of the two black Republicans in the caucus.
Hurd was born and reared in San Antonio and went on to serve as the Texas A&M student body president during the bonfire collapse, giving him added prominence in the Aggie community. After college, he served as a CIA agent in South Asia and the Middle East from 2000-2009.
In 2010, Hurd ran for the Texas 23rd District but lost to Canseco in the Republican runoff. After Canseco lost his 2012 reelection bid to Gallego, Hurd again faced Canseco in the 2014 Republican nomination rematch, which Hurd ultimately won.
The CIA background also plays into the expected national GOP messaging for the fall: that this race will be about national security. In the interview, Hurd said he ran in 2014 “to be a leader on national security” — and that when it comes to the issue, he is more in touch with voters’ worries than Gallego.
“People are concerned whether they can go in a grocery store and a mall and there’s not going to be a terrorist attack,” Hurd said. “We need people in office that understand this threat.”
To be sure, Trump is not the only issue coming up in the race. Gallego has painted Hurd as unfriendly to the tourism industry at the heart of the district, which includes Big Bend National Park. Gallego has criticized Hurd for cosponsoring a border security bill that would add hundreds of miles of new roads to the region; Hurd says its impact is not nearly as harmful to the park as Gallego claims.
Aided by national Democrats, Gallego has also accused Hurd of not fighting hard enough in Congress to fund relief measures for the Zika virus, a growing threat in Texas. At a recent town hall, Hurd insisted it was Democrats in the Senate who were holding up dollars to combat the virus.
Hurd’s campaign has sought to keep the focus on the four pieces of legislation he has passed since getting to Washington. They include bills that sought to protect overtime pay for Border Patrol agents and streamline computer systems at the Department of Homeland Security.
It is those bills Hurd has in mind as he assails Gallego as a former do-nothing congressman who would be no different the second time around. Gallego counters that he was “a workhorse and not a show horse" in Congress, quietly getting things done through amendments.
The two were at it again over legislative matters last week when Gallego teased Hurd on Twitter about his affinity for the 80 mph speed limits in the district, which Gallego pushed for as a state lawmaker. A day later, Hurd sent a fundraising email sarcastically thanking Gallego for the speed limit increase so he could serve the district more efficiently than Gallego did.
That is one theme of Hurd's first TV ad, in which he talks up how he "constantly visits all 29 counties" in the district.
Yet it's also in the advertising where the fundraising gap between the two candidates is coming to bear. In their most recent campaign finance filings, Hurd had about $900,000 more in cash-on-hand. This means that ahead of Labor Day, Hurd is on the air and Gallego is not.
In the interview, Gallego made no bones about his financial disadvantage, saying that incumbents in the district have historically spent more only to lose. This time, he expects Hurd to spend twice as much as he will. “That just means that I’ll beat him twice as bad because that’s what happens in this district,” Gallego said.
Adding to Democratic anxiety, plenty of Republican donors avoiding the Trump campaign are looking for down-ballot races to dump money. Some Washington Democrats anticipate a brutal pummeling of Gallego in the fall at the hands of conservative outside groups.
Scott Yeldell is a Texas Republican consultant who ran 2010 and 2012 races in this district for former Canseco. His hope is Hurd can win two in a row, solidifying his hold on the seat and breaking the flip-flop cycle.
"External politics has left the district without steady, and therefore effective, representation in Congress,” Yeldell wrote in an email.
As committed as national Republicans are to Hurd, national Democrats are equally invested in Gallego. He’s a sentimental favorite from his term in Congress, and like Hurd, Gallego is drawing financial support from former colleagues donating to him from their own campaign accounts.
National Democrats are increasingly confident they will pick up at least a dozen House seats, and with each new Trump controversy, the Democratic net gain estimates are creeping toward a 20 seat pickup. In every single one of those calculations, Democrats are counting on winning the Texas 23rd.
They are looking to the backing of people like Alejandra Hernandez, a disabled veteran who lives in San Antonio. Hernandez, who was serving in Iraq when Gallego was first elected, said she is "not very political" but is now supporting Gallego due to his attention to veterans' issues and opposition to Trump.
"We don't want a follower, we want a leader," Hernandez said of the candidates' different approaches to Trump. The billionaire, she added, is "making a battle between every human being. The negativity that comes out of his mouth every time he speaks — it's sickening."
But Capitol Hill GOP aides counter that House candidates might have breathing room from a Trump stench.
While U.S. Senate campaigns are becoming as complex as presidential races, House members still know many of their constituents. That makes it all the harder, Republicans argue, to tie incumbents to the bombast and anomalous nature of the Trump persona.
Hurd has cultivated an image antithetical to Trump: a cool, calm consensus-builder in the partisan whirlwind of Washington — the rare Texas Republican who actually has to talk to Democrats, he jokes. There are even a handful of House Democrats who will privately praise Hurd.
Gallego argues it is all a facade, frequently citing an index that says Hurd has voted with his party 96 percent of the time — more frequently than conservative firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
Democrats, who still have fresh memories of candidates caught in the undertow of President Obama's 2014 unpopularity, shake their heads.
“I keep coming back to what we kept saying last cycle — that a lot of our candidates were strong enough to separate themselves from the top of the tickets,” said a national Democratic operative who is intimately familiar with competitive House races around the country, including this one.
“These people had their own profile, [but] they could not escape the top of the ticket as hard as they tried,” added the Democrat, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Traveling the district, Hurd said he does not get asked much about Trump “because I’m talking about local concerns.” Instead, he insisted he hears more about his grilling of FBI Director James Comey at a committee hearing last month, shortly after Comey declined to recommend charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“What comes up more is people thank me for ... making sure that we don’t create a culture in our national security apparatus that says the protection of classified information is not important,” Hurd said.
Within days of Trump becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee, Hurd put out a statement saying he could not support the billionaire until he “shows he can respect women and minorities and presents a clear plan to protect our homeland.” Since then, Hurd has offered critical comments in response to various Trump-related controversies.
Hurd confirmed Thursday that he still does not support Trump but is not ruling out voting for him this fall. “My opinion hasn’t changed,” he said.
That’s not enough, according to Gallego, who argues Hurd is trying to have it both ways. Gallego speaks admiringly of Hurd’s colleagues in congress who have either renounced their support for Trump or said from the get-go they cannot vote for him.
“I’m sorry that he’s your guy, in a sense, but he’s your guy,” Gallego said. “If he’s not your guy, then you need to say he’s not your guy, and then that’s OK. But in the meantime, I think all of us deserve to know where you are.”
For his part, Gallego comes across as a less-than-enthusiastic supporter of his party’s presidential nominee, Clinton, whom he nonetheless plans to vote for in November. Like Hurd, Gallego skipped his party’s national convention in July. In the interview, he said both candidates have “significant baggage, but what people talk to me about is they feel safer with her than with him.”
With the summer fading fast, both campaigns are gearing up for a battle to the finish line. On Wednesday, Hurd’s campaign released his first TV ad, part of a seven-figure buy through Election Day, that promised he is “just getting started” as the district’s representative in Washington. He followed it up with an Olympics-themed spot that said the games in Rio de Janeiro are a reminder Americans are all on the "same team."
Before Election Day, Gallego would like to have four debates with Hurd in different parts of the district, preferably the El Paso area, the San Antonio area, Del Rio and West Texas. Asked Thursday about the possibility of debating Gallego, Hurd said he “would love the opportunity to show contrasts between his failure in Congress to do anything and our record of accomplishment.”
There appears to be little love lost between the two.
“In a wave year that ... gave them their biggest majority since Herbert Hoover, the best he could do is beat me by 2,200 votes. I have that many cousins, OK?” Gallego said in the interview. “It wasn’t that big a margin, and if that’s the best you can do in a wave year when I ran seven points ahead of Wendy Davis, and he ran eight points behind Greg Abbott, that tells you that the swing is still there.”