November 16, 2016
Best Incumbent Campaign
Best Challenger Campaign
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd appeared to have the odds stacked clearly against him when he locked horns in a rematch this fall with the former Democratic state lawmaker who he'd ousted from Congress two years ago in the midst of a Lone Star State avalanche for the GOP.
The rookie Republican from San Antonio was running for re-election for the first time as an African-American in a battle with a Latino foe in a district where seven out of every 10 residents are Hispanic. Democratic challenger Pete Gallego had a monstrous advantage in experience as a former district attorney who'd served 22 years in the Texas House before winning a promotion to Congress in 2012. Hurd in sharp contrast had been an elected official for less than two years.
Congressional District 23 covers a vast expanse of West Texas with the San Antonio and El Paso areas as the bookends - and the GOP hadn't won the seat in a presidential election since a federal court transformed it 10 years ago from safely Republican to swing territory. CD 23 - incredibly and sadly perhaps - is the only one of 36 U.S. House districts in Texas that isn't a lock for one of the two major parties on the current map.
The uphill climb that Hurd faced looked far more imposing this time around with Donald Trump as potential down-ballot poison for Republicans in competitive races on the ticket that he was crowning as the presidential nominee. Trump gave the Democrats a potent new weapon in a race that Gallego probably would have been a slight favorite to win regardless of the White House competition on the ballot above.
After having to deal with the distraction of a token primary opponent, Gallego came out swinging with Trump as his machete in a race that the Democrats turned into a referendum on whether Hurd would embrace the elephant at the top of his own ticket or try to run and hide from the presidential hopeful for the GOP. An association with Trump would hurt Hurd more in theory than other incumbent Republicans in tight races in light of the fact that the wealthy New Yorker had gotten his campaign for president off the ground with bombastic rhetoric about immigrants from the south.
Trump's rants on immigration hit a major nerve in CD 23 where Hurd represents an 800-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that separates Texas from Mexico. So it came as no surprise when Hurd found himself fielding questions about Trump in general and the border wall that he'd promised to build as a signature campaign issue.
Trump appeared for months to be the worst possible nightmare for a freshman Republican who' was seeking a new term in a heavily Hispanic district on the nation's southern edge as an incumbent who doesn't have a Spanish surname. But Hurd handled the unique and dreaded challenge like a veteran of the Royal Ballet while spending most of the last three months doing high-wire pirouettes on the daily inquiries about whether he supported Trump and would have the guts to admit it if he did not. Gallego and the Democrats portrayed Hurd as spineless every time he skirted the trap on Trump - and the incumbent refused to take the bait as the pounding intensified throughout August and September. Hurd waited until he had the perfect opportunity to take a position in the presidential competition on his own initiative without the appearance of capitulation to the opposition howling. And Hurd effectively disarmed the Democrats when he finally denounced Trump and declared that he wouldn't be voting for him after an audio tape with remarks from the past that women found highly offensive surfaced in the final weeks of the race.
But Hurd's greatest strength as a candidate had been his performance on the job and the relationships he'd forged during his debut in Washington. A former CIA agent who'd survived dangerous undercover assignments in Afghanistan and other trouble spots in the war on terror, Hurd parlayed his professional background into his work as a lawmaker who gained a reputation during his first term as an expert on security issues. Hurd avoided the partisan power traps while working across the aisle with Democrats like U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of El Paso.
Hurd ended up winning endorsements from the editorial boards for the San Antonio Express-News and the El Paso Times - the congressional district's two major newspapers that had both backed Gallego in the initial encounter in 2014. While the editors at both papers agreed that Gallego was a worthy alternative, Hurd contended that he'd been more effective in Congress partly as a result of the fact that he's a member of the party in power and his Democratic rival is not.
Hurd had the money edge in one of the 10 most expensive races on the congressional battlefield across the nation this fall - with about 60 percent of the $15 million price tag in CD 23 being spent on his behalf.
Hurd won with an intensified turnout effort in targeted areas that contain the highest number of GOP voters. Hurd carried Medina County near his home base and the part of Bexar County that he represents by significantly larger margins than the incumbent Republican who Gallego defeated four years ago had managed to do. That might have been the difference in a general election that Hurd won by a margin of less than 2 percentage points with less than 49 percent of the vote.
Hurd's task that was already tricky had been complicated even more on a ballot that included a Libertarian who would receive almost 5 percent of the vote. While his election victory wasn't exactly a shocker in a district that Mitt Romney had carried and John McCain lost, it qualifies as the biggest upset in the competition for state and federal offices on the Texas fall ballot because it's the only real choice in that regard.
The Best of the Election selections for 2016 Texas general election have been presented in separate installments this week.