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Trump's campaign spiral jolts Hurd-Gallego rematch

Most Texas Republican leaders have largely stood by Donald Trump, but one has fully distanced himself — U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, locked in a heated rematch with Pete Gallego.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego (left) was ousted by Republican Will Hurd, right, in the 2014 CD-23 contest.

In deeply red Texas, fallout from Donald Trump's lewd comments about women has been more limited than in other states. Top Texas Republicans uniformly condemned the remarks without pulling their support, standing by Trump with under a month to go until Election Day — and more peril on the horizon for his already flagging campaign.

An exception, however, swiftly unfolded in the state's 23rd Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, locked in a heated rematch with Pete Gallego, called on Trump to leave the race, crystalizing opposition to his party's nominee after months of Democratic pressure. The full repudiation by Hurd, who had never endorsed Trump, launched the race into a new stage, auguring a brutal homestretch in a battle Democrats had longed hoped would hinge on Trump.

Texas Republicans, even those fully behind Trump, say they get it.

"We in the county continue to support Trump, but I fully understand what Hurd's trying to do and what he’s trying to accomplish," said Adolpho Telles, chairman of the El Paso County GOP. "He’s gotta do what he’s gotta to do to maintain his seat." 

The turning point in the 23rd — home to the only competitive congressional race this November in Texas — began just hours after the surfacing of a 2005 clip last Friday showing Trump speaking in explicit terms about sexual assault. Hurd initially responded with a statement condemning the comments as "utterly sickening and repulsive for all women and Americans." A day later, Hurd issued another statement announcing he would not vote for Trump and asking the nominee to "step aside for a true conservative to beat Hillary Clinton." 

Now, fully untethered from Trump, Hurd's campaign is making the case he would be a check-and-balance on whomever the next president is — not just a rubber stamp for his or her agenda. His campaign has started airing a TV ad that argues he would hold accountable either Clinton or Trump in the White House — an increasingly common refrain in congressional contests across the country as Trump continues to tank. 

"In Congress, Will Hurd had the guts to take on the FBI director when reckless actions put our nation in danger," a narrator says, referring to Hurd's questioning of the director, James Comey, over the FBI's investigation into Clinton's emails. "Will Hurd fights for what he believes in and is the only candidate willing to stand up to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump."

The new tack is not satisfying Democrats, who were quick to argue Hurd's change of heart was too little, too late. They say that Hurd's full disavowal of Trump on Saturday does not make up for his relative silence in previous instances of Trump attacking women, minorities and the military. 

"Mr. Hurd was meek as a mouse as Mr. Trump made all of his comments, and it is too late for that mouse to roar now," Gallego told reporters Tuesday, appearing at a news conference ahead of a Trump visit to San Antonio. 

Gallego's campaign quickly moved to put the argument on the air, releasing a TV ad Monday that criticizes Hurd for taking too long to fully distance himself from Trump. Gallego was the first Democratic congressional candidate to release a commercial of its type, according to a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"Courageous leaders in both parties have spoken out that Donald Trump must never be our commander in chief," Gallego says in the spot, facing the camera. "Congressman Hurd waited until it was too late to speak out about Donald Trump."

While Trump allies have gone after anti-Trump Republicans in other states, Hurd does not appear to be paying a price within his own party in Texas. Asked Wednesday about Hurd's call for Trump to step aside, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chairs Trump's efforts in the Lone Star State, struck a deferential tone while noting he is "very supportive" of Hurd. 

"If an individual person — we're talking about one out of our whole delegation — makes a decision they don't want to be tied to the top [of the ticket], that's their decision," Patrick said in an interview with Time Warner Cable News. "But Trump is willing to help them if they want the help." 

On Friday, Hurd's repudiation of Trump continued to be of more intense interest to Democrats. The DCCC issued a statement questioning why Hurd, if he is not voting for Trump, is not supporting Clinton in what House Speaker Paul Ryan has labeled a "binary choice." Ryan is set to visit San Antonio on Monday to attend a fundraiser for Hurd, his third event for the freshman this election cycle.

Hurd was also hit Friday with a pair of new TV ads linking him to Trump, one from the DCCC and the other from House Majority PAC, a super PAC that works to elect Democrats to the House. The DCCC spots highlight how Hurd was open to voting for Trump until Saturday, and the House Majority PAC commercial asserts Hurd "sided with Donald Trump and his political party, hurting Texas families."

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