Published June 17, 2016 in The Moderate Voice
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A marquee House race is literally taking place in the backyard of the place where one of the most high-profile issues on the national stage is playing out. It is the 23rd Congressional District of Texas where the issue of immigration reform is more than just talk, for the ties to the border are both emotional and personal.
Encompassing 800 miles, the 23rd is a sundry combination of glitzy portions of San Antonio, border towns and military friendly Fort Stewart and Del Rio. It wraps around more of the U.S./Mexico border than any other Congressional District in the nation. Many voters trade heavily and have family on the other side. The Latino population is 71% which inevitably means that politics and policy go hand-in-hand. As such, this is one district where the central and supporting characters are one in the same.
The central characters are the two candidates and this is not the first rodeo of either. Republican incumbent Will Hurd and Democrat and former Congressman Pete Gallego have each sought the office twice before – winning once and losing once. But this year, those battles may seem like the minor leagues, especially because the supporting characters – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, will have an over-sized presence.
The 2012 remap created a partisan dominance of one party or the other in each of Texas’ 36 Congressional districts which has meant a dearth of competition for the general elections. The sole exception is the 23rd, a district that has changed partisan hands in four of the last five elections. Indeed, Texas-23 leans Republican but recent voting belies the fact that it is far from a GOP stronghold. In 2012, statewide Democratic candidates lost the 23rd by an average of 2.9%. In 2014, that ballooned to 13.4%. The reason: Turnout is typically high in Presidential election years but lower in off-years when Texans choose a Governor, particularly in ho-hum years like ’14.
Nationally, Barack Obama carried the 23rd by a single percentage point in 2008 but Mitt Romney edged him out 51-48% four years later. That same year, Gallego, a congenial and immensely popular state legislator of more than two decades unseated a relatively weak first-term incumbent, Quico Canseco who in 2010 had himself sent packing a less than overwhelming Democratic Congressman, Ciro Rodriguez.
In 2014 Republicans vowed to get even with Gallego. They bypassed Canseco and gave their nomination to Hurd, an African-American and former CIA officer in the Middle East who had served as student body President of Texas A&M during the collapse of a bonfire in 1999 that killed a number of students. He had sought the 2010 nomination but lost to Canseco.
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<strong>Republican Congressman Will Hurd is trying to prove that his upset over Gallego was no fluke</strong>
For much of 2014, Gallego was favored to beat Hurd. But Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, whom many saw as the future of the two-party system in the “Lone-Star” State, had somersaulted in the polls and consequently, had caused candidates in swing districts to nosedive as well. That demoralized the liberal base and resulted in anemic turnout, primarily among Democrats. Consequently, Hurd nipped Gallego by 2,400 votes out of 123,000 cast, despite facing a cash deficit of more than a million dollars. In each instance, Gallego’s base in the rural, border counties came through but his portion of Bexar County (San Antonio), which encompasses 48% of the district, went for the challenger by 17%. Conversely, in 2012, Gallego only lost Bexar by 7% while walloping Hurd in the rurals. Some Democrats argued Gallego didn’t build the infrastructure to guard against the forthcoming category five Republican hurricane but nonetheless urged a rematch. Almost immediately, Gallego acquiesced.
Hurd has been an active legislator who quickly put incumbency to use. He realized the importance of raising mucho caliente and by the end of his first quarter in Congress, had raised $529,000 an astounding number for a freshman. One fundraiser “Crash and Bang: Tactical and Offensive Driving with Rep. Will Hurd,” focused on his skills as an agent. He has worked the district hard and has compensated for the weaknesses of both of his predecessors, primarily in Bexar, where one veteran Texas reporter told me a number of moderates in Bexar had not been enamored with either Gallego or Canseco but “are pretty solidly for Hurd.” Meanwhile, in the border counties, Gallego is the only politician many voters have ever known. He is such an institution that a fair number actually think he is still their Congressman. That is vital, for winning obviously requires him to offset Hurd’s margin in Bexar. It is worth noting that after years of coasting, his 2010 election was one just 55-45%. My source, who asked not to be identified due to proximity to one of the candidates noted that unlike past years, no Presidential candidate with Texas ties is on the ballot. If Cruz had been the GOP nominee, he explained “we would be having a different conversation.” But there are two Presidential candidates everyone has an opinion on, and that’s where the 800 pound gorilla in the room comes in for this Congressional race.
In that vein, turnout is expected to skyrocket. “Hispanics who don’t ordinarily vote will come out for Hillary,” my source said while, “white voters who don’t ordinarily vote will” do the same for Trump. Accordingly, “one candidate will try to hang the other Presidential candidates around their neck.” At this point, Gallego is doing so with a vengeance. A recent ad accused Hurd of “ducking and dodging” Trump, declaring “nothing but crickets” when it came to condemning recent Trump comments. Hurd’s response is that he is not a Trump lackey and that, “Until the presumptive nominee shows he can respect women and minorities and presents a clear plan to protect our homeland, I am going to reserve my endorsement. I hope in the next…months he can show this because I am not supporting Hillary Clinton.” “Hurd hurts some from Trump’s divisive stances.”
One thorn in the spine of Democrats. The 23rd has been the focus of ongoing voting rights litigation for nearly five years and although a ruling had been expected well before 2016, the three Judge panel hearing the case announced that the election would proceed under the current lines. The longevity of the case has dismayed voting rights advocates who expected that a favorable ruling would increase the Democratic performance of the district.
How much turnout will increase is critical here. Hurd’s inroads in Bexar have been notable but, but because the 60,000 vote drop-off from 2012 to ’14 occurred in primarily Democratic areas, it’s not hard to see that a substantial increase will be to his advantage. Still, Hurd has been wily enough that his message just might get through to enough voters who would typically give either side a shot. Both sides recognize this and the national Democratic campaign arm, the House Majority PAC, has listed Gallego as among its top five recipients.
With all of those variables and outside factors,the race at this stage the race can’t be viewed as anything other than a tossup.
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