Campaigning earlier this month in Texas' 23rd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, had to remind Democratic primary voters in the perennial swing district not to get ahead of themselves in the race to unseat their Republican congressman.
"This is a four-way primary, so it’s not just about waiting until November to take on [incumbent U.S. Rep.] Will Hurd," Castro said, stumping for his preferred candidate, Jay Hulings. "It’s a four-way primary, and he’s got to get through that March primary."
The reminder was understandable. There has not been a competitive Democratic primary in the district since 2012, when Pete Gallego won a runoff for the nomination — and went on to unseat then-GOP incumbent Francisco "Quico" Canseco. Two years later, Gallego was unopposed in the primary but lost the general election to Hurd, a Republican from Helotes. Gallego attempted to reclaim the seat in 2016 — it was smooth sailing in the primary then, too — but came up short in November.
Now, CD-23 is faced with its most crowded Democratic race in decades to determine who will duke it out in November in what is regularly ranked as one of the country's most competitive districts. It spans San Antonio to El Paso and includes hundreds of miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, a massive, largely rural area with a predominantly Hispanic population.
Four Democrats are seriously vying for the seat in the March 6 primary: Judy Canales, a former Bill Clinton and Barack Obama appointee from Eagle Pass; Hulings, a former federal prosecutor from San Antonio; Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer from San Antonio; and Rick Treviño, a former high school teacher from San Antonio who unsuccessfully ran for city council there before entering the TX-23 primary last year. A fifth Democrat, Angela "Angie" Villescaz, filed for the seat but does not appear to be running as active a campaign as the others.
With a week and a half until Election Day, much attention has centered on Hulings and Jones, who appear poised for a runoff if neither can garner over 50 percent of the vote on March 6. Propelled by EMILY's List, the influential national group that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, Jones has shown serious fundraising momentum, raking in $282,000 in the first 45 days of 2018 — more than three times Hulings' total over the same period. She entered the homestretch of the race with a more than 2-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Hulings, $217,000 to $101,000.
The two are drawing their support from distinct corners of the Democratic universe. Hulings enjoys the support of Democratic congressional leaders such as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, as well as political figures well known within the district, including his law school classmates, the Castro brothers. Hulings, who is Mexican-American, also has the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the moderate Blue Dog Democrats.
Jones, meanwhile, is being backed by veterans and LGBT groups, in addition to EMILY's List. She has also been endorsed by two of the most prominent women in Texas Democratic politics: Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, two former state senators — Van de Putte is from San Antonio — who were the 2014 nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively.
Aiming to distinguish himself from Jones, who came back home to San Antonio for the race after working in Washington, Hulings has increasingly stressed his roots in the district, where he has spent the past several years residing and working in San Antonio and Del Rio. One of his ads focuses specifically on his time in Del Rio, where he namedrops the Mexican restaurant where he took his wife on dates and the bull-riding competition held there every spring.
"I think this race is very much about local versus not local, and when it comes to Gina vs. Jay, I think — what I’ll say about Jay is, Jay’s local connections run deep," said Hulings' campaign manager, Chris Koob. "He chose the 23rd District to live in and raise his family, and I think Gina very clearly made a choice to live in Washington, D.C."
Jones bristles at the suggestion she is out of touch with the district — and she notes that Hulings also has Washington experience, having worked on Capitol Hill before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in South Texas.
"In and out of uniform, when my country needed me to serve, I did that," Jones said in an interview. "I didn’t say, 'Hey, could I do that from San Antonio?' It’s disingenuous to say that 'she wasn’t here.'"
More recently, the tension between Hulings and Jones has focused on BRAC — Base Realignment and Closure — or the process in Congress of determining whether to shut down military bases to save money. It's a sensitive subject in San Antonio — known as Military City USA — which lost its Kelly Air Force Base to BRAC in 2001. Jones has expressed openness to another round of BRAC, saying the Department of Defense should always make sure it is using taxpayer dollars efficiently.
At a recent forum, Hulings bluntly criticized Jones over the issue, arguing she is leaving the door open to future base closures because she has not spent recent years in the district and is "still thinking like a Pentagon bureaucrat." After the event, Jones dismissed Hulings' argument, telling the San Antonio Express-News that it was not a certainty that another round of BRAC would lead to base closures in the district and that Hulings was "fear-mongering."
While neither has come close to Hulings or Jones in fundraising, Canales and Treviño round out the field in their own unique ways. For her part, Canales is the only one of the four candidates from outside San Antonio, instead coming from Eagle Pass, a city along the Texas-Mexico border. And for the majority of her last 15 years as a political appointee — she most recently served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture — Canales worked out of the district versus in Washington.
In an interview, Canales counted among her advantages in the race her long experience in the federal government and her geographic edge in a district that is ground zero for the immigration debate. "I'm the only candidate that actually lives on the border," she said.
Treviño is positioning himself as the field's truest acolyte of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. Treviño has unapologetically campaigned on Sanders-championed ideas such as a Medicare-for-all health care system, free public college tuition and a $15 minimum wage. His focus on those issues has earned him endorsements from both the state and national arms of the group that grew out of Sanders' White House bid, Our Revolution.
In an interview, Treviño argued his Sanders-inspired campaign has given him a "natural voting base" that his opponents lack, even as he sees some of them seeking to encroach on his turf.
“My challenge is to make sure that my Bernie base understands that I’m the true progressive in the race and I’ve been consistent on these issues not just since 2017," Treviño said in an interview.
Waiting at the finish line of the Democratic primary is an increasingly well-positioned Hurd, who faces minimal opposition in his own nominating contest. Since his 2016 re-election, he has amassed a $1.2 million war chest and built a national profile as a rising-star Republican willing to break with his party's president, Donald Trump.
In recent months, both Democratic- and Republican-aligned polling has found Hurd's popularity far outpacing Trump's in the district. So while his Democratic opponents certainly have their beefs with him — chief among them is that his voting record is not nearly as independent as his image suggests — they appear to have found a more galvanizing target in the president for now.
In Hulings' first TV ad, he made no mention of Hurd as he stood in front of a pre-existing border fence in Del Rio, blasting the president for wanting to spend $18 billion on even more barriers instead of focusing on jobs and education that could better serve the district.
"I approve this message," Hulings says at the end, "because I'm running for Congress to stop Donald Trump from destroying the American dream."