Vulnerable Republican Rep. Will Hurd’s biggest challenge this year isn’t his Democratic opposition, his tough battleground district, or even separating himself from an unpopular president. It’s his own party’s agenda in Washington.
Congress is days away from its self-imposed deadline to reach a sweeping immigration deal that protects Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program beneficiaries from deportation and secures the nation’s southern border with Mexico.
Lawmakers are also dealing with an investigation into Russian election meddling, highlighted by the dramatic release of a House Intelligence Committee memo Friday afternoon.
Hurd will have his political skills tested as a major player in both dramas.
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Hurd’s San Antonio-area Congressional district is a perennial target of both parties. This year five Democrats are vying in a March 6 primary to take on Hurd.
In a party that’s struggled with diversity, GOP leaders have placed a high priority on protecting the 40-year-old black Republican who they see as a future leader and face of the party. He’s one of two black Republicans in the House, and touts a resume that includes nine years as a Central Intelligence Agency agent.
“Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re going to look at a Will Hurd and say this is someone who’s an independent voice who is actually representing his district and representing it well,” said former Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., another independent-minded favorite of party leaders who lost a close re-election bid in 2016.
But, Dold said of Hurd’s challenges, “You can’t control what the president does, what the president tweets, or what legislation hits the floor.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report counts Hurd’s district as one of the most vulnerable GOP-held Congressional seats. It’s ranked “lean Republican.”
Republican polling conducted in January and shared with the Star-Telegram found Hurd, who was re-elected by a one percentage point margin in 2016, in a strong position. Forty-four percent of voters viewed him favorably, while 27 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Trump, who lost Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 3 percentage points in Hurd’s district, was viewed favorably by 41 percent and unfavorably by 48 percent.
Republicans say Hurd’s worked hard to personally maintain independence from Trump, even if that gap widens. Independence from Trump’s legislative agenda, however, is another question.
In September Trump announced plans to end the DACA program, which would impact more than 124,000 DACA recipients in Texas. He asked Congress to come up with a legislative solution that would provide protection for those young people in exchange for construction of the border wall he promised throughout his presidential campaign.
Hurd’s massive West Texas district includes more than 800 miles of the nation’s nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Texas GOP primary voters rank border security as a top policy priority, and failure to deliver could depress their turnout in the upcoming midterms.
But a physical wall is impractical in many places along the border, and members of both parties say it could damage border communities if leaders try to force physical barrier in places where they don’t work.
“It’s not just Democrats, Republicans who own farms or ranches or land where a border wall would be built... don’t want the government coming in and taking their land,” said El Paso Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat whose district also runs along the border next to Hurd’s.
Hurd’s district is also nearly 70 percent Hispanic, and home to more than 4,000 DACA recipients who are vulnerable to deportation. Congress’s inability to reach a deal to protect them could fuel Democratic turnout, or turn conservative Hispanic Texans away from the GOP, Texas Republican strategists say.
Last month Hurd, who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, sought to take control of Congress’s DACA dilemma with his own legislative proposal. Hurd’s bill, which he introduced with 50 co-sponsors from both parties, offered a path to citizenship for DACA recipients as well as technology and physical barriers to secure the U.S. Mexico border.
“I have more border than any other member of Congress,” Hurd said at a press conference unveiling the legislation. “We should be able to know what’s coming back and forth across our border. The only way we’re going to do that is by more technology and a thoughtful approach and that’s what [this bill] does.”
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., planned to introduce a version of Hurd’s proposal in the Senate this week, but Trump appeared to reject it in advance Monday morning, tweeting that any DACA proposal without a wall was a “total waste of time.”
Hurd’s GOP colleagues in the House, meanwhile, are rallying around a different bill to accomplish those goals, one crafted by House conservatives. That proposal does not offer a pathway to citizenship, and includes a long list of changes to legal immigration and enforcement measures that critics on the left say are hostile to the Hispanic community.
Mario Carrillo, Texas state director for the immigrants’ rights group America’s Voice, called Hurd’s approach “encouraging,” but criticized him for not doing enough to push back on other GOP proposals. America’s Voice is one of the nation’s largest immigration rights groups, and has a full-time staff member rallying grassroots efforts in Hurd's district to push him on immigration.
Hurd’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Democrats are eager to tie him to the GOP’s harshest immigration plans.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named Hurd’s district as one of four targets in Texas for 2018, along with GOP Reps. Pete Sessions and John Culberson and the seat held by retiring Rep. Lamar Smith.
National Democrats plan to attack Hurd on two votes he took last year that sought to provide funding for Trump’s wall — one on the Homeland Security Committee and another as part of a government funding bill. Their favored candidate in Hurd’s race, Jay Hulings, last month launched Spanish and English language web ads accusing Hurd of standing with Trump “and his anti-Hispanic, anti-jobs, fear mongering campaign.”
Hulings is one of five Democrats running to challenge Hurd, who reported just over $1 million on hand for that race at the end of 2017. Hulings, a former counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, had $281,000. Another Democrat, U.S. Air Force veteran and Obama Administration intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, had $169,000.
Hurd and his allies, including the House Speaker Paul Ryan-aligned super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, have made his security experience, including time at the CIA, a key piece of his re-election pitch.
Last week, the House Intelligence Committee became embroiled in a controversy over GOP members’ vote to release a controversial memo about the election – while declining to release a similar memo crafted by their Democratic counterparts.
Trump said the memo “vindicates” him from the investigation into Russian election meddling, while Texas Democrats quickly blamed Hurd for “abusing [his] political power” to “sow distrust” in law enforcement.
Hurd defended his vote to release the memo in an op-ed Friday, saying he spent “most of [his] life collecting intelligence and protecting sources and methods.”
But, Hurd said Sunday, he does not believe the memo “vindicates” Trump, and investigators should “be allowed to turn over every rock” to learn about possible Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election.