Republican Will Hurd, an energetic former Texas A&M student body president with an impressive national security résumé and a deft touch for retail politics, ran a textbook campaign to defeat incumbent Democrat Pete Gallego in 2014 for the fiercely contested District 23 congressional seat.
The highly gerrymandered district, stretching from northwest San Antonio to the far southwestern reaches of the Texas-Mexico border, has always been majority Hispanic, yet Hurd, who is African American, was able to eke out a narrow win, which he repeated again in 2016 when Gallego sought to recover his lost seat. Hurd won for a third time, again by a narrow margin, in 2018, against Gina Ortiz Jones, a surprisingly strong upstart challenger. She, too, proved to be a smart, mediagenic candidate, new to electoral politics, and bolstered by her own impressive national security résumé.
Jones has been campaigning almost since the day she conceded defeat, and Thursday that tenacity was unexpectedly rewarded when Hurd announced he would not seek a fourth term, and instead would use his talents somewhere back in the national security realm to improve the country’s shaky cyber defenses.
Some Democrats are saying Hurd calculated he could not win again and was bowing out of one of the nation’s most contested congressional districts. There’s no evidence, however, at this juncture to say that a Democratic presidential candidate poses a threat to President Donald Trump, and thus puts Hurd at greater risk. After watching Hurd work tirelessly for the last five years, I’d say he grew tired of not being able to make a difference in the realm he cares about most: border security and national defense.
You can’t make a difference when the political party you align with no longer aligns with you. Core values like fiscal restraint, smaller government, personal responsibility, and family values no longer define what it means to be a Republican. Hurd was not a Trump Republican, even if he voted with his party most of the time.
He was the only black Republican in the House, but his district is home to countless Mexican-American families who feel assaulted and denigrated by Trump. Hurd repeatedly expressed opposition to Trump’s border wall. More recently, he was the only Texas Republican to vote to condemn Trump’s race-baiting tweets and his “go home” invitation to four Congressional Democrats who happen to be women of color.
At times over the last year, I found myself wondering if Hurd might switch parties, but it was only a passing thought. He would not have found a comfortable home among Democrats, who are undergoing an identity crisis of their own with moderates pursuing an “anybody but Trump” strategy and progressives campaigning for dramatic social and political change.
What Hurd cares most about is national defense. He knows the Russians successfully meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and while “no collusion” has become a Trump battle cry, it’s also true the president has sided more with Russian President Vladimir Putin than his own U.S. intelligence agencies on the matter, despite ample evidence of continuing political interference by foreign powers.
There is a strong role for Hurd to play now in convincing fellow Republicans to confront that continuing interference and the broader threats hostile state actors pose, but it won’t be as a member of Congress. Hurd could join an existing think tank, but given his fundraising prowess, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him start his own singularly focused enterprise.
Hurd’s decision is a gut punch for Republicans. He is the third congressman in Texas to announce he will not seek reelection in recent days, and the party loses someone who as a freshman advocated for using technology to improve veteran services, protect consumer data, and guard vital infrastructure. He was light years ahead of aging party leaders still learning to use their smartphones.
The party stands little to no chance now, in my opinion, of identifying a competitive candidate to walk in Hurd’s footsteps. Texas just turned a tad more purple.
Jones brings many of the same skills and attributes to the party as did Hurd. She is smart, personable, has a deep understanding of national issues, is a relentless campaigner, and has strong national security and defense credentials. As a Democrat, she does not have to defend the indefensible, as did Hurd, even if he did so at times with his silence. National party leaders, already cognizant of Jones as a credible candidate in a highly sought-after congressional district, will make sure she has the resources to run a competitive campaign.
A congressional race in such a vast, sprawling district is a marathon. Jones left the starting line months ago and already is miles ahead of any would-be challenger. There will be no catching her, even as we watch what’s next with Hurd.