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Parties Gear Up for Crucial Test in Only Competitive Texas District

Hurd is one of two African American Republicans in Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Hurd, left, is one of two African-American Republicans in the House. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The districts that are expected to provide true, edge-of-your-seat general election excitement this cycle are few and far between. One of the biggest — in size and importance — is Texas’ 23rd.

Aside from being Texas’ only competitive race, the district is “also important because it signals an ability for each party to compete,” said Progress Texas Executive Director Ed Espinoza.

With only 10 seats rated as Tossups by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call, both parties are treating this Mexican-border-district rematch as a top-tier race.

Just days after then-Rep. Pete Gallego, 53, lost by 2 points to former CIA operative Will Hurd, 37, last November, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee urged Gallego to run again. DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján is hosting a fundraiser for him next week.

As 1 of only 6 Republicans seeking re-election in a Tossup district, Hurd has already been a top target for Democrats, who would need to net 30 seats to win control of the House, while the National Republican Congressional Committee made him an initial member of its Patriot Program, which helps defend vulnerable members.

But for Republicans, holding on to Hurd’s seat goes beyond defending their majority. As 1 of 2 African-Americans in the House Republican Conference, Hurd’s presence in Congress goes a long way toward bolstering the party’s efforts to diversify.

A closely watched race in the roughly 700,000-person, majority-Hispanic district is nothing unusual. GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried the district by 3 points in 2012, while President Barack Obama carried it by 1 point in 2008. The 23rd District has changed between parties five times since 1992.

GOP Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco won the seat in 2010, followed by Gallego in 2012 and then Hurd in 2014. If those recent elections are any evidence, incumbency isn’t an advantage in the 23rd.

Still, it seems to be helping Hurd where it counts. He raised $529,000 during the first quarter of 2015 — more than the $429,000 Gallego raised during the first two quarters of 2013 combined. Gallego outraised Hurd during the 2014 race, but Hurd consultant Josh Robinson said, “We’ve taken that inequality off the board.”

Hurd’s message, Robinson said, would be similar to last cycle — “Pete is a career politician and Will is a fresh voice.” But, “this time we have a record to run on that we’re very proud of.”

Hurd is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Technology, and Robinson touted that he’s already had a bill passed.

Democrats are counting on Gallego’s name identification and crossover appeal to help him outperform Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s widely expected to be the Democratic nominee for president, in the district. For more than 20 years, Gallego represented one of the more conservative areas of the 23rd District in the state House of Representatives. And in Congress, Gallego supported the president only 53 percent of time, according to CQ Vote Watch, and voted with his party 75 percent of the time. Hurd has voted with his party 95 percent of the time.

Since leaving Congress, Gallego’s legal work has often taken him to Austin, which Republicans are quick to note is outside the district. But since announcing his candidacy in April, Gallego’s been traveling in the district, where he often hears, “Hey, congressman, how’s it going?” campaign spokesman Anthony Gutierrez said.

“He’s had to tell people that he’s no longer in Congress,” Gutierrez said. “At the end of the day, [last year] was really just a turnout problem.”

Democrats are banking on turnout in a presidential year reversing their midterm fortunes, pointing out that Gallego outperformed Obama in the district in 2012, when he defeated Canseco by nearly 5 points.

Gallego’s Hispanic name, Democrats say, also helps him.

“I think it would be safe to say there would be more Gallegos than Hurds in the district — both figuratively and literally,” Espinoza said.

But Texas Republicans don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that Hispanics, who make up nearly 70 percent of the population, will vote a straight Democratic ticket.

“We feel very confident in Will’s crossover appeal,” Robinson said, pointing to his own consulting work getting an African-American Republican-elected mayor of heavily Hispanic San Antonio last week.

“We have field staff already knocking on doors,” Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler echoed about the party’s Hispanic outreach.

Both sides are watching a redistricting case the Supreme Court will hear this fall, which could alter the lines of the district — Democrats hope in their favor. One reason Republicans have done so well in the state, Espinoza said, is the way its districts are drawn.

“[But] when you’ve got a level playing field between two strong candidates,” as Espinoza said there will be this year, “the outcome gives you a better reflection of where the parties stand. That makes Republicans nervous.”

Correction 1 p.m.

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Hurd’s fundraising compared to Gallego’s.