This Republican incumbent could survive a blue wave

Posted at 4:00 AM, Oct 02, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-02 06:00:10-04

Republican Rep. Will Hurd should be worried about his job.

He is running in a Texas district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. His opponent is well-funded, and this year is shaping up to be a good one for Democrats.

But the unguarded congressman isn’t sweating.

“I am going to win this election regardless of what happens everywhere else,” he said as his campaign bus rolled between campaign stops in small towns south of San Antonio. “Whatever happens is going to include Will Hurd in Congress.”

Hurd is the prime example of what both parties in Washington view as resilient Republicans — lawmakers who, despite the headwinds against them in 2018 and the demographic changes of their district, could survive a surge of Democratic turnout that boots Republicans across the country out of office.

“Do I see some of those trends nationally in my district? Yes,” Hurd said. “Am I worried about them? No, because I have an independent relationship with the people in my district.”

Hurd is joined on the list by representatives like David Valadao and Jeff Denham in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Carlos Curbelo in South Florida, all of whom are running in districts Clinton won in 2016.

While these Republican lawmakers are all different in their own ways, they have all tried to cut an independent persona in their districts, breaking with their party at times. Republicans see lawmakers like these as the first line of defense against a blue wave, conceding that even if they are able to keep a slim margin in the House, it will be on the backs of people like these lawmakers with crossover appeal.

All four lawmakers represent districts with sizable Hispanic populations and have sought to take a moderate approach to immigration during the Trump administration by seeking to force a vote on immigration earlier this year and slamming the President for his child separation policy at the border.

There is bipartisan acknowledgment that these lawmakers have avoided the complacency trap that some other Republicans have fallen into this cycle. Much to the chagrin of Republicans in Washington, some incumbents have not appeared to take seriously the a strong challenge they face in 2018, leaving them flatfooted when a strong Democrat stepped up to run against them.

Hurd, who was first elected in 2014 and won in 2016 by 3,000 votes, is not one of those lawmakers. Those margins don’t breed complacency, and Hurd said he began expecting a tough race the day after his 2016 win.

“The environment we are in now is exactly the environment we expected to be in 2 years ago,” he said.

Some Democrats disagree that these members are inoculated from a blue wave.

Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq war veteran and first-generation American running against Hurd, said the congressman is “best consumed as a silent film.”

“People are unhappy with the way in which he has voted against this district,” she said. “You can’t be outraged on CNN and complicit in Congress, that is not how that works.”

TJ Cox, a businessman and Valadao’s opponent, said members like Hurd and Valadao “are frankly just party tools.”

“Sure, they come off as moderate, they say one thing in the district and they do another entirely in Washington,” he added.

Ortiz Jones is vying to become America’s first Filipina in Congress. She has seized on Democratic enthusiasm, raising $1.2 million to Hurd’s $684,000 in the most recent quarter.

But the money advantage and the attacks on his moderate image have not turned into a polling advantage for Ortiz Jones. A New York Times poll earlier this month found Hurd up eight percentage points on Ortiz Jones, with only 7% unsure of how they were going to vote.

Like other Republicans that appear resilient in 2018, one reason for Hurd’s success is his ability to cut an independent profile, breaking with Trump and the Republican Party when needed. Hurd has become a chief Republican critic to Trump in Congress. He wrote an opinion editorial earlier this year arguing that Trump is being manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and has stood by that sentiment at events when asked about his support to Trump.

“I agree when I agree, disagree when I disagree,” he said during the tour, and his answer on the border has become the clearest example of that.

And Hurd is putting in the work in his district. Earlier this month the congressman embarked on his third DC2DQ tour, where Hurd spends a week driving from Dairy Queen to Dairy Queen in his 29-county district.

There is little that is glamorous about a tour of Dairy Queens. Hurd’s campaign stops were often drowned out by the whirl of Blizzard machines or the hum of an open drive-thru microphone. And the events didn’t draw huge numbers. In the low-slung Dairy Queen in Pearsall, Texas, for example, Hurd drew five reporters and six constituents.

But the congressman defends the tour as his way of staying in touch with his district, one where Republicans are intently focused on immigration and securing the border.

“Building a 30-foot high concrete structure from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security,” he said in response to question about Trump’s border wall. It was one of a dozen border security questions he fielded in a day, and his answers regularly focused on his plan — a “smart” border wall that uses technology instead of concrete — and not Trump’s trademark pledge to “build the wall.”

And while Trump regularly went unmentioned during the events, it didn’t take much listening to infer that Hurd was rebuking Trump’s style throughout the day.

The congressman was spoon deep into his third mini blizzard of the day when he reflected on the state of politics in the United States, lamenting the fact that so many kids are bullied online.

“We got to be mimicking the kind of behavior (our kids) should be doing and it starts with us,” he said, not mentioning Trump. At other stops he said people need to “to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.”

Hurd was not eager to bring up Trump on the campaign trail. His most common mention of the Republican standard bearer was to note his distance from him: “The President and the Speaker of the House are not my boss.”

For Republicans outside the district, it is that ability to break with Trump when needed that allows Hurd to survive in tough races. But those who attended Hurd’s events attribute it to something different: The fact he shows up.

“I am a liberal,” Ricahrd Baes said after Hurd wrapped up his first speech of the day in Castroville, a small town outside San Antonio. “But I like him because I see him a lot.”

Baes voted for Clinton in 2016 and does not support Trump’s presidency. He is animated by the fact that Hurd will stand up to Trump — “I do like the fact that sometimes he doesn’t vote straight Republican,” he said — but added that his support is primarily based on tours like DC2DQ.

“I know Will,” he said.

The story was similar for Robert Finch, a 58-year old retired law enforcement officer from Natalia, Texas who showed up to Hurd’s event in Devine wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

“(Hurd) sounds more like he is on our side,” said Finch, who still supports Trump. “By all means, I don’t agree with him 100%, but he sounds fair.”