If it's an even-numbered year, there's a good chance of a competitive race for Texas' 23rd Congressional District, a perennial swing seat sprawling across West Texas. Also likely is a fierce debate over which candidate is a better advocate for one of its key constituencies: veterans.
This time around, the debate is between Republican freshman U.S. Rep. Will Hurd and Democratic challenger Pete Gallego, who are squaring off in a heated rematch. Hurd, a former undercover CIA officer, is trumpeting his work in Congress benefiting veterans, while Gallego is arguing that Hurd supports funding cuts for veterans programs and is not standing up to his party's bombastic presidential nominee on their behalf.
"What do all these communities all across the district have in common? The answer is that there are significant numbers of veterans in all of our communities, even the small ones," Gallego said in an interview Tuesday. "Respect for veterans and their service is a huge issue, and if you’re not willing to call someone out who’s disrespecting men and women in uniform, you don’t get high marks."
For starters, the district is bookended by two cities with heavy military presences: El Paso and San Antonio. Plus, the issue is hardly new territory for Hurd and Gallego, who clashed over it in their 2014 race when Hurd unseated one-termer Gallego. And in a volatile district, it's one issue where the candidates can appear above the fray.
“This is a way for them to kind of de-emphasize what in fact is a very ethnically and party divided district with an issue that sort of tamps down partisan and ethnic divisions in favor a parochial issue that is relatively noncontroversial," said Walter Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "Everybody is theoretically for it and so the contest is, 'Who can be more effective when it comes to veterans?'"
Both candidates have put the issue front and center in their TV ads. In his first commercial of the campaign, Hurd touted how he has "worked to get better care for our veterans," while Gallego's latest spot features two veterans attesting to how he fought to get them benefits while he was in Congress. Hurd's campaign is also airing an ad contrasting his record on veterans with Gallego's.
Gallego is getting help from outside groups when it comes to pressing his case. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is on the air in the district with an ad that accuses Hurd of inadequately defending the military community against attacks from his party's presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
In recent days, Gallego has gone on the offensive, holding a news conference Friday to criticize Hurd with Cheryl Lankford, a Gold Star wife who spoke earlier this year at the Democratic National Convention. She accused Hurd's campaign of using her as prop by including footage of her in a campaign ad.
"A few weeks ago, we had a town hall meeting here, and it was another candidate running for District 23," Lankford said. "What we realized — quickly realized — was that this candidate was not hear to listen to our needs as military, as survivors, as veterans."
Gallego and his allies are staking their criticism of Hurd's record on the claim that he supports drastic cuts to programs for people who have served in the military. They cite a 2014 forum in which Hurd said Congress "needs to cap federal spending to a percentage of GDP — 18 percent is a good number because that was the number when the budget was last balanced."
But regardless of what Hurd said two years ago, his campaign says he never voted in Congress to cut funding for veterans. "In fact, he has voted to provide an $4.6 [billion] increase for the VA," campaign manager Justin Hollis said, pointing to Hurd's support last year for the House budget bill.
Hurd himself, campaigning with Gov. Greg Abbott on Saturday in San Antonio, fired back at the suggestion that he has been anything but fully behind veterans.
"It's unfortunate that my opponent is spreading lies about my record when it comes to supporting veterans," Hurd said unprompted in remarks to supporters. "You know, these veterans stood up for us. They were willing to put themselves in harm's way, and we're going to continue to stand up for them. And this is something that's very important to my campaign."
Gallego's campaign was ready with a statement hours later, again citing Hurd's statement at the 2014 forum. "Mr. Hurd's mouth often runs a little fast and loose — just as fast as he runs away from reporters asking him about Donald Trump," Gallego spokeswoman Lyndsey Rodriguez said.
Like many aspects of the race, Gallego has injected Trump into the conversation surrounding Hurd and veterans issues. The GOP nominee has alienated some veterans with his suggestion that U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, is not a war hero because he was captured, as well as Trump's protracted war of words with a Gold Star family in August.
"When [Trump is] disrespectful of veterans, when he’s disrespectful of Gold Star families, when he’s disrespectful of prisoners of war — Mr. Hurd hasn’t said a word," Gallego said in the interview.
While Hurd has not gone out of the way to criticize Trump in general, he did denounce the nominee for his attacks on the Khan family, whose patriarch criticized Trump in a speech at the Democratic National Convention. At the time, Hurd told the El Paso Times that Trump "should be like the rest of Americans and respect the sacrifice that the Khan family has made on behalf of this nation."
Regardless, Hurd frequently argues that such attempts to tie him to Trump are Gallego's way of distracting from his own record in Congress. Hurd often notes that Gallego did not get any bills signed into law while in Congress, while he has authored four such piece of legislation — with a fifth one on the way that names Tornillo Port of Entry in El Paso County after Private Marcelino Serna, the most decorated soldier from Texas during World War I.
"The veteran community has been championing this issue for many years," Hurd said in a statement Wednesday, "and it is an honor to deliver on their wishes."
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- Facing off again in the state's only competitive congressional race, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego hopes strong turnout from Hispanics angered by Donald Trump will help him reclaim the 23rd district seat from Republican Will Hurd.
- The fundraising race for Texas’ only competitive congressional seat is heating up.Freshman U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican, hopes to fend off a challenge from the man he defeated in 2014, Democrat Pete Gallego.
Democrat Pete Gallego is determined to take back the 23rd congressional district from Will Hurd. But his rival is leveraging the benefits of incumbency and mounting a stronger campaign than last time around.