It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be Will Hurd, the Republican who represents the 23rd Congressional District of Texas, a giant swath of Texas that stretches from San Antonio some 550 miles to El Paso and includes more than one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border. Predominantly poor, rural and Hispanic, the 23rd has been the only truly competitive congressional district in Texas for several election cycles. Since 2006, it’s flipped between the Democrats and the Republicans four times. If Dems are going to win back the U.S. House, they need the 23rd, and they have a pretty good shot at it.
But Hurd’s national profile has been growing of late, largely thanks to a rash of extraordinarily positive stories from national media. Politico, in one of the most breathtakingly puffy pieces ever published about a politician in a country with a free press, recently labeled Hurd a “phenom” with “a rare combination of competence,” “responsiveness” and “ferocity.” At length, the piece singles out Hurd, who spent most of the presidential election power-walking past congressional reporters and declining to comment, as a dynamo on the Hill, bravely standing against President Trump. He just might be the “future of the Republican Party.”
There’s speculation in particular about John Cornyn’s Senate seat, if he were to decide not to run again. To get there, Hurd has to wait this backlash out, and pretend to be something other than a generally reliable GOP foot soldier who takes the president’s side 95 percent of the time.
This August, he’s been laying the groundwork for his re-election bid by holding town hall meetings around his district. The first took place on August 6 at a packed Dairy Queen in El Paso. Hurd stood in front of a line of confused locals queuing for Blizzards and offered a master class in the rhetorical skills many Republicans are going to need this cycle, a collection of talking points he’s been repeating throughout his district. If you face an unhappy electorate next year, here are a few things you can learn from Will Hurd:
1. Emphasize that you’ll always, always shoot straight.
The people like an independent thinker, an iconoclast. They like when the Straight Talk Express comes to their town. “We might not always agree, but I’m always gonna be honest,” Hurd tells the Dairy Queen crowd. “I’m gonna come out here and tell y’all why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m gonna stand tall in Washington, D.C., and work on behalf of the 23rd District.”
That sounds great. Now, let’s get ready to hear some tough talk on the issues of the day — the stuff that matters.
2. Quickly skate past the stuff that matters.
“Washington, D.C., is a circus,” Hurd says. “And, uh, but, look, we haven’t been able to sort out the issues with health care on the individual market. We haven’t been able to come up with a strategy to counter covert influence so that we can stop what the Russians tried to do in 2016. In September, we’re gonna have to deal with a debt ceiling increase. There are still a lot of problems that we’re gonna need to solve.”
That’s it. No solutions to the problems. Can we at least get a pithy, feel-good closer? Hurd: “We can’t just focus on our own jersey, whatever team we’re on. There’s way more that unites us than divides us.”
A high school teacher stands up to ask a question. Hurd, the man begins wearily, voted to repeal Obamacare nine times. He also voted to end the Obama administration’s protections for Dreamers, and he’s against net neutrality. Oh, and why isn’t he speaking out about the administration’s gutting of the EPA while representing a district with serious pollution and water quality problems?
Hurd runs through his rebuttals as quickly as possible. The man had conflated Congress’ vote to allow internet providers to sell your browsing history with the issue of net neutrality. “Net neutrality has nothing to do with privacy,” he says. “It’s about ensuring that everybody continues to have the kind of access to the internet that they need.”
“It’s about tiers,” the man says, trying to get his congressman back on track. “Exactly, tiers, that’s what net neutrality does,” Hurd says. Moving on.
“Some of the bills that came through to repeal Obamacare, yes, I voted for it. This time, a new bill came, a new thing, I voted against it,” Hurd says. “I’ve always said, with health care, you gotta do a couple things. One is increase access, and one is decrease cost of health care. That bill didn’t do it, so I voted against it.”
In other words, Hurd voted to detonate the American health care system nine times because he knew Democrats would prevent the dumb bills he supported from becoming law. The minute he was faced with the possibility of the thing he had said he wanted to happen actually happening, he flipped. That passes for normal behavior in Congress now.
The EPA? “We, people, are having an impact on our environment,” Hurd says, boldly. “So we gotta make sure that we leave our kids and grandkids the kind of environment that we have.”
Ok. The Dreamer thing? The issue, Hurd says, is procedural. The Obama administration’s method for protecting undocumented kids from deportation was improper. It should be in Congress’ purview. The obvious follow-up, unasked: Would he, as a member of Congress, push for that policy — advocate for the many people in his district it would protect? Well, no, he’s always been wishy-washy on the issue, offering verbal support for some kind of modest immigration overhaul while not actually supporting any of the major efforts to accomplish it. But he declined to even talk about that.
4. President… who?
Trump’s name doesn’t pass Hurd’s lips. The closest he comes to being forced to address the White House and its occupant is when Alma Castillo, a 63-year-old who came to the U.S. at age 3 and later became a citizen, tells Hurd about the rising fear in the immigrant community.
When she misplaced her naturalization papers and sought replacements, she had been threatened with deportation, a memory that nearly brought her to tears. “Tell Mr. Trump, let him know, what he’s doing to this country,” she says. “We’re all Americans, but he has divided all of us. it’s a horrible feeling.”
As Castillo is telling her story, an irate woman who says she’s German-American interrupts to tell the room that she, a white person, would have been treated the same way, and that Castillo hadn’t experienced racial profiling. It was an ugly moment, and provided Hurd an opportunity to express some of that political independence national observers have praised him for so lavishly. Instead, he walked over and gave Castillo a hug — then offered something tepid about the economic benefit of immigration. “We’ve benefited from this reverse brain drain for many years,” he says.
Stories about Hurd’s town hall tour have often played up his disagreements with the president, but they’re not substantive differences — they’re dodges. Instead of Trump’s big border wall, Hurd wants a “smart” border wall, with cameras and sensors. He’s been planning it with the help of Palmer Luckey, a Silicon Valley far-right-winger who secretly funded pro-Trump memes. The idea of the smart wall has been floating around for a while and has some Democratic support, but it also allows him to walk a wire strung between the build-the-wall and the ban-the-wall crowd. Similarly, he offers platitudes on immigration because he can’t be seen to identify with a camp. Then, he’s lauded for his bravery.
Hurd recently told the Texas Tribune that he doesn’t believe the Democrats can make Trump’s toxic cloud stick to him. If he’s right, it’s in part because of the extraordinarily low standards to which we hold Republicans who express the slightest bit of discontent with the administration. If we want to see more political courage from our elected officials, maybe we should stop so casually rewarding the hint of it.