Trump Anxiety in Texas Isn't Over

The Republican incumbent in the state's lone competitive congressional race could be adversely affected by his party's nominee.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas at a December press conference with GOP leaders at Republican National Headquarters
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Kimberly Railey
March 2, 2016, 8 p.m.

Every House member in Texas facing a primary challenge survived on Tuesday, but for Republicans looking ahead to the state’s only competitive general election, the worry has just begun.

In West Texas, freshman Rep. Will Hurd faces a rematch against Democratic former Rep. Pete Gallego in a swing district where more than 70 percent of the population is Hispanic.

It was already a toss-up race, but as Donald Trump extends his lead for the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Republicans are increasingly worried he could further complicate Hurd’s path by driving large numbers of Hispanics to the polls.

“With Trump’s rhetoric and fear he instills, it’s going to be a drag,” Texas GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser said. “It’s going to put Will in a position to have to take a position on Trump, and that’s a tough place to be politically.”

Hurd’s reelection with presidential-year turnout is a challenge regardless of the GOP nominee. But it is Trump, Republicans said, who is the most problematic variable in a district that spans 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.

Hurd has already created some distance with the GOP front-runner, rebuking Trump's plan to build a wall on the border. In an interview with National Journal last month, Hurd declined to say if he would back Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer.

“Atmospheres matter, but I don’t believe in coattails,” Hurd said then. “If you’re worrying about how somebody else is going to impact you, then you’re not worrying about what you should be worrying about. And that’s interacting with your constituents.”

On Wednesday, Texas Republicans took solace in the primary results, when every conservative challenger was defeated despite the potential for a Trump-inspired insurgency. In the Houston area, House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady faced the most difficult fight, but he narrowly avoided a runoff, as did each of his House colleagues facing primaries.

But among a much broader and more diverse electorate in November, and with Hurd facing a Hispanic challenger, Democrats said Trump will be a boon for them even if he isn’t the nominee.

Thanks to Trump, Texas-based Democratic strategist Matt Angle said, “there is now a Republican Party that’s anti-Latino.”

Trump has the highest negatives among Hispanic voters of any Republican in the field, according to a Washington Post-Univision News poll released last week.

There is precedent for the district showing an independent streak. In 2012, Gallego won the district by nearly five points, even as Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Cruz both carried it in their races that year. President Obama won it in 2008.

But in the turnout numbers from the nine states where both parties voted on Super Tuesday, Democrats saw the momentum swinging in their favor. NBC News reported Wednesday that 2.7 million more Republicans than Democrats overall went to the polls, but turnout among Republicans and Democrats in Hurd’s district was roughly equal.

“It’s telling,” Gallego spokesman Anthony Gutierrez said, “that the enthusiasm gap statewide and nationally was not present in Texas-23.”

Hurd’s campaign countered that Republican turnout levels swelled compared to the last presidential-election year, when 17,000 GOP voters turned out in the primaries compared to nearly 40,000 Democrats.

Hurd also boasted much more money in his campaign account in the most recent filing: $1 million to Gallego’s $411,000, as of Feb. 10.

In 2014, Hurd eked out a victory against Gallego, 50 percent to 48 percent, in a race that drew $5.4 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Last month, Democrats identified the seat as one of the top 19 districts they’re targeting for 2016. The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, has placed Hurd on its list of most vulnerable members.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans have highlighted his background as a former CIA officer, tapping him to chair an Oversight subcommittee on information technology. For his part, Hurd said recently he is focusing solely on his own campaign, and he is confident voters will be able to weigh his record independently.

“They may have heard about one of the presidential candidates or may have even seen a commercial for that person, but they’ve seen me live and in person,” Hurd said in the interview. “They’ve seen me, and they know I’m there helping them out.”

Graphic by Libby Isenstein
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