SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Few Republicans in Congress have publicly criticized President Donald Trump like Will Hurd of Texas, who didn’t vote for him in 2016 and won’t say if he will in 2020. But next week on Election Day, Hurd could end up helping save him.
One of just three black Republicans in Congress, Hurd drew national attention this summer for accusing Trump of “standing idle on the world stage” and being manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He represents a Hispanic-majority district won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, which, in this deeply divisive election year, should point to him being toast.
But back home along the U.S.-Mexico border, Hurd hangs on by a thread in his bid for a third term, potentially depriving the Democrats of one of the 23 additional seats it needs to retake the House.
Hurd, who squeaked out his last two elections by 5,500 votes combined, has figured out how to survive in Texas’ only swing district by being the rare swing candidate.
Some signs of that are even literal: Steve Armstrong waved a yard sign for Beto O’Rourke, the surprising Democratic U.S. Senate challenger, outside a polling station in a San Antonio neighborhood last week as Hurd greeted early voters in the rain. But when Armstrong spotted the congressman and approached, it wasn’t to lay into him.
“I gotta tell you I’m a Beto guy, but I’m all for people working across the aisle and getting some common-sense stuff done,” Armstrong told Hurd. “Right-wing, left-wing, it’s killing this country.”
The race is a rare and striking example of a vocal Trump critic in the GOP proving durable at a time when other vulnerable Republicans are moving closer — not away — from the combative president. In Florida, Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo is another moderate and Trump critic also trying to defy the political forces working to polarize.
If they win, Hurd and Curbelo will likely spotlight a survival strategy for Republicans in places where Democrats otherwise prosper.
Hurd has kept a distance from Trump both politically and in proximity: He skipped the president’s rally in Houston this month and wasn’t mentioned by the president.
“The people that I care about mentioning me are the folks walking by here,” Hurd said, adding, “I have an independent relationship with people.”
Hurd grew up in San Antonio with conservative parents and went to Texas A&M University, becoming student body president. After graduating he went to the CIA, where he worked as an intelligence officer in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he says he managed undercover operations. He jokes that his campaign team wants pictures from his time at the agency but says that “folks in West Texas don’t want to see me looking like a Taliban.”
His sprawling 800-mile district, which spans two time zones and is larger than 26 states, ping-ponged between being held by Republicans and Democrats before Hurd pulled off a slim re-election victory in 2016. The heart of the district is San Antonio, where a heavy military presence lends a conservative tilt.
But it’s also 70 percent Hispanic with more than half of families speaking a language other than English at home — a Democrat-friendly trait.
Hurd has handled the balance by being a Republican known for his dissent within the party. He mocks Trump’s proposed border wall, acknowledges man-made climate change as real and supports a path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” who weren’t born in the U.S. but brought to the country as children by their immigrant parents.
His opponent, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, calls him a phony whose record in Congress shows a Republican nearly in lockstep with his party, including Hurd voting in favor of a spending bill that included border wall funding. Hurd has said he was voting for provisions, including a military pay raise.
To be sure, Hurd walks a fine line in the fights he picks with Trump. He demurred when asked whether he believed Trump was trying to stoke racial anxieties before Election Day by issuing dark warnings about a caravan of Central American migrants heading toward the U.S. border.
Jones, an Air Force veteran making her first run for office, would make history as Texas’ first openly gay and Filipina-American member of Congress. She has outraised Hurd, and the congressional Republicans’ fundraising arm recently went back on TV attacking her.
His pitch doesn’t matter, she said. “You don’t need to hear the words. You just have to watch the votes.”
Jim Randall, 55, has watched the votes, and after casting his ballot for Hurd, he swung by on his way out to give the congressman a piece of his mind over supporting young immigrants.
“I’m sorry man, but they gotta go. I’ve always voted for you, and I sure as hell wouldn’t vote for Ortiz,” Randall told Hurd. “But I’m pretty disappointed in you.”
Hurd said he appreciated the feedback, and they parted with a hand shake.
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