District 23 U.S. Congressman Will Hurd responds to reporters questions following the election.
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd will not seek reelection. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd’s announcement last week that he would not seek reelection has turned an already-swing district on its head.

The three-term Republican, who fended off serious challenges in each of his reelection bids, unexpectedly bowed out of the 2020 race for the 23rd Congressional District, which spans from West San Antonio and South Texas cities such as Carrizo Springs west to the outskirts of El Paso.

Even though Hurd has helped the GOP maintain a foothold in the largest U.S.-Mexico border congressional district, he’s won by relatively slim margins each time – last defeating Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones by just 926 votes in November. Before Hurd won the seat in 2014, it had swung back and forth between the parties for eight years.

Hurd’s departure is a devastating blow to the Republican Party nationally, said Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist who has worked on campaigns throughout South Texas. The GOP had sunk millions of dollars into Hurd’s campaigns and groomed him into a rising star in the party. And after becoming the only black Republican in the House of Representatives in January, Hurd could leave the party without an African-American in its caucus.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Strother said. “Now they’ve got to start over from scratch. In a district this size it’s going to be very tough.”

In the wake of Hurd’s announcement, former U.S. Navy officer Tony Gonzales, a Republican, has entered the race. Gonzales was not 24 hours into his campaign for the 35th Congressional District, held by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), when he got the news Hurd would be leaving office. That’s when a flurry of phone calls and texts came in urging him to declare his candidacy for the 23rd district.

“No one saw Congressman Hurd retiring,” Gonzales said. “It was kind of a shock to a lot of folks.”

Unlike statehouse seats and other elected positions that require candidates to establish residency within the district one seeks to represent, running for the U.S. Congress only requires residency in the state in which one is running for office.

Gonzales has joined a field in the Republican primary that includes retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raul Reyes Jr., who owns a home construction business in Del Rio, and Uvalde dentist Alma Arredondo-Lynch, who challenged Hurd in the 2018 primary. That list could potentially grow in light of Hurd’s exit from the race.

Reyes has a five-month head start on Gonzales and has raised more than $15,000 in campaign contributions. He had more than $9,000 cash on hand as of the last quarterly report to the Federal Elections Commission. Arredondo-Lynch did not report any campaign contributions last quarter.

But Gonzales has garnered significant endorsements in his incipient campaign. On the day the Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran announced his run, he picked up the endorsement of former U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, who represented the 23rd district for 14 years. Days later, another former Republican representative of the 23rd district, Quico Canseco, endorsed Gonzales’ bid.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said it will be an immense task for a new candidate to win the seat.

“It’s, without question, the toughest seat for Republicans to hold in 2020,” he said. “This district is going to be won or lost by two points or less, irrespective of who the nominees are. It’s a razor-thin margin.”

The Republican Party will hope one of them has the chops to keep the seat in the party’s hands in what is expected to be a difficult 2020 election season for the GOP, and as last year’s Democratic nominee Gina Ortiz Jones, who has garnered critical donor support, mounts another campaign.

Less than 50 days after announcing another run for Hurd’s seat, Jones had secured nearly $600,000 in campaign funding.

Altogether, the news of Hurd’s impending exit was both a surprise and not a surprise, Jones said.

“We came within 926 votes of taking out the most formidable Republican, raised $6 million to do it,” she said. “We’re going to work just as hard. So I think he saw the writing on the wall.”

Gina Ortiz Jones.
Gina Ortiz Jones

But the decision to run again was not taken lightly, Jones said. The U.S. Air Force veteran who served as an intelligence officer during her service was so close in the last election that she held off conceding for two weeks until all outstanding ballots were counted. The John Jay High School alumna even attended orientation for freshmen members of Congress.

“You don’t go through that and say, ‘Let’s do that all over again,'” she said. “You assess and say, ‘What did I learn?’ For me, it’s always been about how best can I serve. When I made the decision, it was always based on the fact that my community’s needs were still not being met.”

In the Democratic primary, Jones will face former broadcast journalist Liz Wahl and activist and surgical practice administrator Rosey Abuabara.

Abuabara, 54, a Latina who was born and raised in West San Antonio, said she believes she can better represent a district that is 70 percent Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.

“I wanted to come up and represent because we are the largest population,” she said. “I feel like I could do more.”

Abuabara, who highlighted immigration and health care as her two top issues, was arrested last month during a protest at the migrant facility for children in Carrizo Springs.

Wahl left her journalism career behind in 2014 after quitting on air to protest her then-employer, English-language broadcast outlet Russia Today, which was increasingly becoming a mouthpiece for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime, she said.

“I no longer wanted to be a neutral observer,” she said, adding she aimed to do something about her growing concerns over the direction of the U.S. in the era of Trump. Wahl said she was the subject of attacks by Russian trolls after resigning from RT, which is funded by the Russian government, and has been a frequent speaker at forums on the rise of disinformation on the internet.

Although incumbents are harder to defeat, Republicans have seen a number of their colleagues announce they’re vacating their seats, especially since the beginning of the 116th Congress in January. Hurd is among a dozen members of the House to announce their retirement from office, including fellow Texans Kenny Marchant, Pete Olson, and Mike Conaway. Mackowiak said that speaks to both the difficulty they would have faced winning reelection and the waning influence of the GOP in a majority-Democrat House.

On the heels of a difficult 2018 for the Texas GOP when two congressional seats were flipped in former Republican strongholds and Beto O’Rourke nearly became the first Texas Democrat to win a statewide election in decades, Strother said Hurd likely faced another tough campaign in 2020. In hopes of seizing on the momentum from midterm elections that he said turned Texas purple, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has firmly planted its flag in Texas with an office in the state and a full-time staff.

“We are going to be better positioned to capture this seat and others than we were last cycle,” Strother said.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.