Will Hurd takes a tour of Rackspace. Photo by Scott Ball.
U.S. Representative Will Hurd (R-Helotes) faces democratic challengers in the upcoming election in District 23.

The Democratic challenge in Texas’ sole swing congressional district could hinge on neutralizing what state political analysts consider incumbent U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s superpower: his national security and cyber-defense credentials.

The Helotes-based Republican is seeking a third term as representative for the District 23 seat that spans south- and westward from San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border. But in a minority-majority district that has swung from red to blue and then back to red, the race could be among the victories to unfurl a “blue wave” for Texas Democrats, said Cal Jillson, Southern Methodist University political science professor.

“In Texas that always means [Congressional District] 23 because that’s the only swing district in Texas,” Jillson said. “It’s gone back and forth several times over the last decade. It should be the first Texas Republican-held seat to switch hands.

“Certainly we’re going to hear about national security, but the voters of the district are more interested in their own personal security [education, jobs, health care].”

A former undercover officer in the Central Intelligence Agency and then a senior advisor for a private cybersecurity firm, Hurd sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform and chairs the subcommittee on Information Technology. In his three years in office, he has made the nation’s defenses against cyberattacks a policy priority.

Tabbed as the favorite in the Democratic race, which heads to a primary runoff May 22, Gina Ortiz Jones is a veteran of the Iraq War, where she served as an intelligence officer. In the years following her service, she carved out a niche advising on national security, namely in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But she faces a challenge from a candidate that some had written off in the early phases of the campaign. A Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016, Rick Treviño edged out candidates with deep federal government experience and even deeper fundraising pockets: Judy Canales of Eagle Pass, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture appointee under presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings of San Antonio.

Despite that, Treviño, a former public school teacher, said he secured enough votes to take Ortiz Jones to a runoff by outworking his opponents and connecting with the residents of District 23 in their communities. He suggested that the largely Latino District 23,  with pockets of rural communities, would benefit from a different perspective.

D23 candidate Rick Trevino marches.
Congressional District 23 candidate Rick Treviño. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Why is it that in this rural district that the top three fundraisers all have some type of relationship with the intelligence agencies? Is this the right type of life experience that’s best suited for this district?” he said. “I think I bring to the table a much more relatable life experience than what these people do because all of them have internalized the culture of the intelligence agencies and Washington, D.C.”

South Texas Democratic political strategist Colin Strother, who believes this will be the year the seat swings back to the Democrats, said it’s advantageous for the party to send someone who can equal Hurd’s national security credentials — while also shifting the focus away from national security.

“We can match him on the security issue and we can outdo him on the pocketbook issues,” Strother said.

The district

Since Republican Henry Bonilla ceded the seat to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez in 2007, the district has changed hands four times. Rodriguez lost the seat to Francisco “Quico” Canseco, a Republican, in 2011. The district promptly swung back to the Democratic side in 2013 when Pete Gallego stepped in, but Gallego failed to win re-election when Hurd was tapped in 2015.

No party has controlled the seat for more than four years in that 11-year time span.

The district is largely Hispanic – 70 percent, according to the latest five-year figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey – but voter turnout hasn’t always reflected that, Jillson said.

A quarter of the district has less than a high school diploma, and a majority speak a language other than English in the home, according to the 2016 Census data.

Although Hurd is “well-liked” and has worked hard, he represents a district that could be vulnerable to anti-Trump backlash – even though Hurd’s moderate politics do not always align with the president’s, Jillson said.

“While national security will be an issue in the election …  it’s going to be a much broader discussion of whether the Trump presidency is good for the citizens of the district,” he said.

Information technology issues

When the Trump administration announced sanctions this month against five entities and 19 individuals in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Hurd said it was “about time.”

But as many of his fellow Republicans in Congress echo the president’s concerns about the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference, Hurd has held firm that the Mueller probe should continue.

“It starts with something very basic, there have to be consequences for bad behavior,” he said. “The fact we finally did sanctions against Russia is a step in the right direction.”

But Ortiz Jones said Hurd has shown a “lack of leadership” amid partisan attempts to discredit the Russia investigation.

“It’s disappointing and, frankly, a national security threat when we don’t hold folks like the Russians accountable and allow our institutions to do the work they need to be doing,” she said.

Congressional District 23 Candidate Gina Ortiz Jones. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Much of the legislation Hurd has authored relates to information technology – from the Modernizing Government Travel Act, which he cosponsored and outlines provisions for reimbursing federal employees who use such services as Uber or Lyft for official business, to the proposed Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act, which seeks to redesignate the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate as a national agency leading efforts to fight cyberattacks.

Regarding the digital divide, Hurd said telecommunications infrastructure will help broaden access to high-speed internet across the district. He has backed initiatives to help bring tech training to veterans and schoolchildren alike in rural communities.

Ortiz Jones said investment in infrastructure should be directed toward areas that need it the most – rural areas with greater income disparity, for example. She said better access to reliable, high-speed internet could also address gaps in healthcare access.

“If you had consistent reliable broadband you could be much more reliant on telemedicine, especially when you have some of the challenges these local clinics face in terms of bringing talent to the rural areas,” she said.

Treviño drew similar connections between internet access and access to such services as health care. He said it’s critical for authentic broadband to be brought to the district’s rural communities.

“We do have to treat it as a crisis because people are dying, they are making different educational decisions, and they are knowing less about the world around them because of this,” he said. “And that’s not fair.”

On net neutrality, the provisions for which were recently stripped by the Federal Communications Commission, Hurd said he supports a free and open internet that “has allowed the tech economy to thrive and be strong.”

Both Democratic candidates said they support net neutrality.

The money

Hurd has built up a sizable campaign fund to fend off a Democratic challenge to his seat. As of Feb. 14, the incumbent had received nearly $2 million in campaign contributions. He spent about $809,000 and had about $1.2 million cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Among his top financiers are real estate investor Jed Manocherian, a New York resident who has sat on the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors, with $5,400; and Charles R. Schwab, who founded and chairs the Charles Schwab Corporation, with $5,400.

Meanwhile, Ortiz Jones has raised nearly $599,000, spent $381,000, and has $217,000 on hand.

She has received deep support from significant players in the national Democratic landscape. Emily’s List, a political action committee supporting pro-choice women, has endorsed Ortiz Jones and availed her to a broad donor base throughout the country.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, announced last week Ortiz Jones was a recipient of its latest round of funding from its Red to Blue program.

Treviño has garnered about $17,000 in small campaign contributions, the vast majority of which were $200 or less. Our Revolution, the organization that spun out of Sanders’ presidential campaign to support progressive candidates, endorsed Treviño’s congressional bid.

Even with a significant funding margin between them, Ortiz Jones and Treviño could be closer than one might think, Jillson said. He said low turnout in runoff elections can lead to unusual results.

“Right now it’s anybody’s game,” Strother said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is the San Antonio Report's audience engagement editor.