U.S. Rep. Will Hurd and Democratic challenger Pete Gallego clashed Thursday in likely their only debate before Election Day over long-standing charges of partisanship and, in particular, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee who has loomed large over the only competitive congressional race in Texas.
In a one-hour debate hosted by San Antonio ABC-affiliate KSAT, Gallego accused Hurd, the GOP incumbent, of doing too little too late to oppose Trump, whom Hurd never endorsed but did not fully disavow until recently. Hurd maintained that he has spoken out against Trump "from day one" while pitching himself as an independent voice for the 23rd Congressional District, a perennial swing district that sprawls across southwest Texas.
"There's only one candidate in this race that's willing to stand up to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton," Hurd said, echoing a theme that has become increasingly common in down-ballot races as Republicans abandon their toxic presidential nominee. "My opponent hasn't. He's lockstep with Hillary Clinton and has said that since Day 1. And I'm willing to stand up against folks in my party to do what is right for this district."
Gallego kept the focus on Hurd's posture toward Trump, pouncing on how the congressman did not fully denounce Trump until the surfacing earlier this month of a 2005 clip showing the GOP nominee speaking lewdly about women. Hurd, Gallego added, "wasn't even the first one" to fully distance himself from Trump following the release of the clip.
"For 15 months, Mr. Trump has been out there spewing hatred against Latinos, against veterans, against — and you never heard Mr. Hurd," Gallego said. "Suddenly when the tape came out, suddenly Mr. Hurd followed the rest of the herd. ... Frankly I believe that if that tape hadn't come out, Mr. Hurd would've continued saying absolutely nothing about Donald Trump. That's not leadership, that's followership."
The back-and-forth illuminated a frequent point of contention in the Gallego-Hurd rematch: which candidate is more independent-minded in representing the big and diverse district. Both candidates beat back charges of being a rubber stamp for their parties, touting their bipartisan credentials and advocacy specifically for the district.
"If I was so partisan, I would've not received the endorsement of the San Antonio Express-News and the El Paso newspaper," Hurd said. "Nobody's going to confuse those two organizations with Fox News."
The debate otherwise included tense exchanges over which candidate has gotten more done in Congress. Hurd has centered his campaign on the fact he has had multiple bills signed into law, while Gallego had none.
In the debate, Hurd repeatedly contended that Gallego is making an issue out of Trump because Gallego wants to distract from getting "absolutely nothing accomplished" in Congress. At one point, Gallego shot back that Hurd was taking credit for progress that Gallego made began when he held the seat from 2012-2014.
"If he's standing tall, it's because he's standing on my shoulders," Gallego said. "He's standing on work that I did."
In one moment that was quickly amplified by Republicans, the candidates were asked to name their proudest accomplishments in Congress. Hurd cited legislation he got signed into law, including a bill dealing with pay for Border Patrol agents. Gallego, meanwhile, said he was most proud of constituent relations and working to improve the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs but did not point to any specific bills.
"23rd District voters were able to clearly see who gets results for them in Washington and who doesn’t," Zach Hunter, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement as soon as the debate ended. "While Will Hurd has proven to be an effective advocate for Texas families, Pete Gallego is completely unable to point to a single legislative accomplishment, because he doesn’t have any.”
That's not to say Hurd did not also give his opponents material to work with after the debate, particularly when it came to one of Trump's signature proposals: building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Hurd insisted he has said since 2013 that constructing a wall "from sea to shining sea" is an ineffective method of border security, a claim Gallego dismissed as irrelevant because the 23rd district is not bookended by oceans.
Gallego also reminded Hurd he has previously said a border wall is appropriate "under certain circumstances," a point Hurd did not entirely dispute.
"A border wall is indeed a tool that should be used in certain places," Hurd replied. "In certain places, it does make sense. In others, it doesn't."
"In other words, he's not against the wall," Gallego quickly added before the moderator, KSAT anchor Steve Spriester, moved on. Shortly after the debate was done, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement holding up the episode as evidence "there is no daylight between Will Hurd and Donald Trump."
In one of the less expected moments, Hurd received an audience question about Supreme Court appointments, a hot topic following the death earlier this year of Justice Antonin Scalia. Hurd initially responded by noting the House has "no say in that effort" — it is up to the Senate to confirm the president's nominees — but pressed on what he would do if he were in the upper chamber, he said he would have voted against Merrick Garland, Obama's pick to replace Scalia.
"But you would've given him a vote?" Spriester asked.
"Um, probably not," Hurd replied. "Like I said, it’s hard to make a decisions on philosophical issues when you’re not in that place. So I don’t know all the background around what was going on at the time, but I think Merrick is not the kind of person that I’d like to see on the Supreme Court."
Hurd's answer gave Gallego an immediate opening to again paint Hurd as a partisan. "That's the kind of obstruction that people are so tired of," Gallego said.
The debate was probably the last meeting between the two candidates before Election Day. Early voting began Monday and runs through Nov. 4.
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