*If he can hold on to the toughest seat in Texas.
HELOTES, Texas—Drenched in yellow light and red fog, Robert Earl Keen scratches at his guitar and unloads the lyrics to his trademark anthem with several thousand boot-and-cowboy-hat-clad Texans howling along in delirium. This is the grand finale on a warm Saturday night at Flores Country Store, among the holy sites in the “Texas Country” music scene, and I’m likely the only soul here who doesn’t know the words. Luckily, it’s not hard to catch on; at the end of each of the eight stanzas, Keen and his mob of devotees belt out the line that made him famous around these parts: The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.
The song isn’t especially deep or meaningful—it’s the story of two small-town social misfits who fall in love, arrange a meeting with Cuban drug dealers, steal their money, then kill the lawman who catches them, only to end with Sonny in the electric chair and Sherry driving a new Mercedes Benz—but the chorus provides an ideal thematic backdrop for a meeting of my own.
Drifting amid the sea of bodies in the poorly lit pavilion is Will Hurd, the congressman who represents Texas’ behemoth 23rd District, which stretches from this suburb north of San Antonio, all the way to El Paso some eight hours west. Of the 36 congressional districts in Texas, 35 are safely controlled by Republicans or Democrats; Hurd’s is the outlier. Not only is his district the biggest in the state—encompassing 58,000 square miles, covering all or parts of 29 counties, and including 820 miles of U.S.-Mexico border—it’s easily the most competitive, with both parties pumping millions of dollars into the 23rd every election cycle. Hurd has agreed to let me drive with him across his district; over the next three days we will traverse infinite stretches of flat and long-forgotten highway, zigzagging between dusty outposts for discussions with constituents and local officials about issues as remote as the real estate they occupy. This is all part of the routine for Hurd, who, as a Republican in a 71 percent Hispanic district, must wage what is essentially a continuous, day-in-and-day-out campaign to keep his job. Serendipitously, before we depart on this odyssey, he wants to acquaint me with the stylings of Robert Earl Keen. The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.
Hurd is a 6’4” black guy at a country music concert; he’s also a federal lawmaker who has become increasingly recognizable since winning his first term in 2014. Yet he mostly succeeds in not standing out. Keen salutes him from the stage halfway through his set, and a bunch of attendees—including two border patrol officers—stop him for a handshake. Otherwise, Hurd keeps a low profile, singing to himself and dancing with his girlfriend, Lynlie Wallace, who serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Lyle Larson and is currently running for a seat on the San Antonio City Council. Hurd, who is just shy of 40, grew up not far from here and today lives a few miles from this venue—close enough, he tells me after one of his staff members introduces us and hands me a Miller Lite from a red cooler, to hear these concerts from home. “Call me Will” is the first thing he says, which I dismiss as an aw-shucks tactic powerful people use to come across as everyday men. It’s not until our trip ends that I realize nobody along the way—judges, construction workers, random constituents, his own staffers—has called the congressman anything except “Will.”
The informality suits him: Hurd doesn’t go out of his way to impress people, as he himself is not easily impressed. His foray into electoral politics was inspired by briefings he conducted with congressional members while working as an undercover CIA operative in the Middle East. More than once he encountered lawmakers who didn’t grasp basic facts about the region like the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Hurd concluded that their constituents were being represented by nincompoops. (“It’s OK for my brother not to know the difference between Sunni and Shia,” Hurd likes to say, “because he sells cable for a living.”) So he quit the agency after nearly a decade and came home, to Texas, launching a long-shot bid in 2010. He won the most votes in the district’s Republican primary but lost the runoff. After retreating to the private sector—utilizing his intelligence and technological expertise to make some serious money as a cybersecurity adviser—he ran again in 2014, this time winning the GOP nomination and defeating incumbent Democratic Congressman Pete Gallego by roughly 2,400 votes. The outcome surprised strategists in both parties; Gallego, a Hispanic former lawyer, had represented much of the congressional district as a state lawmaker and was much better known in the area. Democrats felt certain they’d win a rematch in 2016 with presidential-year turnout—and that was before Trump won the GOP nomination. And yet somehow, despite Trump alienating Hispanics, despite Clinton winning the district by 4 percentage points, despite turnout nearly doubling between 2014 and 2016, Hurd won reelection, this time by just over 3,000 votes.
Democrats rationalize their defeat like this: The district is unfairly drawn to the GOP’s advantage; Clinton failed to inspire low-propensity Hispanic voters; Gallego didn’t raise sufficient money or hustle hard enough. There is, however, another explanation: Hurd is a phenom. Republicans and Democrats who have witnessed his ascent say he possesses a rare combination of competence as a policymaker, responsiveness as a representative and ferocity as a campaigner. Consider that during his first term—with Barack Obama, a Democrat, still occupying the White House—Hurd authored more bills that were signed into law than any other member of Congress. (Most aren’t “sexy” bills of national interest, he says, but rather targeted toward his constituents, such as winning overtime pay for the Border Patrol.) Meanwhile, the freshman lawmaker found time to systematically explore every parcel of his district, assemble a staff that quickly became known as one of the most effective on Capitol Hill, and his camp can raise copious sums of money to power a reelection bid that some in his party had privately written off.
“He’s a survivor. He’s always fought upstream,” says James Aldrete, an Austin-based Democratic strategist who ran the Spanish-language media strategy for both Obama campaigns and Clinton 2016. “To be an African-American Republican in Texas is very rare. And to win, and then win again in a presidential year, which typically would swing the seat back into our corner, and to win with Trump at the top of the ticket, who’s not being helpful to him, and he’s able to distance himself from Trump while increasing his margin of victory …” Aldrete stops himself. He had pledged at the outset of our talk not to get carried away flattering Hurd on the record, and seemed disappointed in himself. “You’ve just got to give him credit,” Aldrete quietly concludes.
Republicans have no such qualms in gushing about his potential. “I’ve been involved in Republican politics for over 30 years, and Democrats should be worried about Will Hurd,” says Texas GOP Chairman Tom Mechler. “The sky is the limit. This guy is incredible.” Of course, that’s what any state party chairman worth his salt shouldsay about a member of his congressional delegation. But the plaudits being showered on Hurd aren’t perfunctory—and they’re not just originating in Texas. When I told Kevin Seifert, the political consigliore to Speaker Paul Ryan who is responsible for raising tens of millions of dollars to protect the House Republican majority, that I was traveling to southern Texas for this story, he replied, “Will Hurd is my favorite member of Congress.”
There’s little for Republicans not to like: Hurd is a young, eloquent, dark-skinned, social media-savvy legislator who solves problems like a technocrat and speaks with an earned authority on national security. He is an intellectual asset to the party; the efficiency-obsessed Hurd, who wants to build a “cyber National Guard” of young computer whizzes to protect the nation’s digital infrastructure, has been communicating with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pitching projects for the White House’s new Office of American Innovation. But Hurd is also unafraid of bucking the GOP and the president himself, especially in the interest of his district. He denounced Trump during the campaign, distancing himself in particular from the candidate’s rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. He voted against Ryan’s health care bill in early May, knowing the toll it would take on the many poor, isolated constituents he represents. And he has emerged as perhaps the most vocal opponent of Trump’s plan to build a wall along the southern border, which he argues would hurt trade, send the wrong message and fail to keep out intruders.
Washington is talking about Hurd as a bonafide superstar who could represent the future of the Republican Party—but first, he must continue to survive in one of America’s toughest congressional districts. Not only do Democrats have a price on his head; a federal court could redraw his district this summer to make it an even heavier demographic lift for Republicans. Hurd has already won twice under a map the court drew in 2013, and insists he’s not worried—“Go ahead, redraw the maps,” he says—but voting patterns there suggest he should be concerned.
“If you look at the history of this district, every single incumbent has gotten beat. There’s not one member from this district that has ever retired because he or she wanted to,” Gallego says, knowingly. “The same thing will happen to Will Hurd. It’s just a question of when.”
We’re seated around an old wooden table in a small dining room in a simple, teal-colored house, one in a string of bungalows that line a working-class street in the northwest corner of San Antonio. This is the house Hurd grew up in. His parents purchased it when he was a newborn nearly 40 years ago, and it wasn’t easy; Bob Hurd, who worked as a traveling salesman—and got used to being told, “We don’t let n—— in here” as he approached pharmacy counters—remembers the redlining practices that made buying a home a nightmare for a black man and his white wife in south Texas circa 1975. They had invited me for Easter brunch before the congressman and I head west, and as we sit down to eat following some brief introductions, I lob a polite softball to jump-start the conversation: “What’s it like having your son in Congress?”
Hurd’s mother, Mary Alice, does not hesitate. “It’s his problem, not mine,” she says. I almost spit out my orange juice at the unexpected hilarity of her response. But maybe she’s not joking. Mary Alice is expressionless as she digs into her plate of scrambled eggs, sausage links, grits and biscuits with butter. Hurd’s mother is a quiet woman with a shy smile, shoulder-length silver hair framing her round, bespectacled face. It’s obvious that she is proud of her son—framed photos and newspaper clippings adorn his old room—but it’s equally obvious that politics aren’t exactly part of the family’s DNA. The framed articles are from Texas A&M’s student publication, The Battalion, marking his ascent to student body president and his time in office, yet there is no trace of his election and reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Your ass is crazy,” Chuck Hurd recalls telling his brother when Will informed the family he was quitting the CIA to run for Congress after nine-and-a-half years as a covert operative. The Hurds were immensely proud of the dangerous and important work he was doing, and I got the distinct impression that they were less enamored of his political achievements. Chuck, the eldest of the three Hurd children—their middle sister, Liz, is away on vacation—is four inches shorter than his younger brother and probably 30 pounds heavier, built like a fullback and wearing a salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look the part of a blue-collar joe. (Clearly familiar with his brother’s Sunni-Shia quip, Chuck tells me he doesn’t merely sell cable, but is a sales manager who supervises other employees.)
If Chuck is straight out of central casting, so, too, is “William,” as everyone here calls him. Tall and well-built with broad shoulders and enormous hands, the congressman has thinning black hair that is receding and meticulously combed back in small, slick waves. This feature, when combined with the rectangular glasses that tend to slip toward the tip of his nose and the slight under-bite he has owned since childhood, give him the distinguished appearance of an oil-painted parliamentarian, especially when glancing downward to read remarks or jot down thoughts in the mysterious red notebook he carries in his jacket everywhere he goes.
And yet Hurd doesn’t always act the part. He cusses casually and laughs loudly, fitting in better with staff members than buttoned-down colleagues. He also talks with the slightest trace of a lisp from his childhood struggle with a speech impediment that had kids calling him “Hurd the Nerd,” a nickname that still makes him shudder. (“Now I’m 6’4”, 235 pounds, spent nine-and-a-half years in the CIA, and nobody messes with me,” he tells a lunchroom full of wide-eyed third-graders in Fort Stockton.)
Hurd swears this career was never in the cards. His parents were conservative people in a conservative part of a conservative state, but there was no cheerleading for either party or dinner-table discussions of electoral developments. “I wouldn’t say political talk was a staple of our house growing up,” he tells me after brunch, laughing. Bob Hurd, who at 84 gets around slowly but cooks a mean breakfast, tells me with a mischievous smirk that he likes to tell people he’s been a Republican “since Lincoln freed us,” but it’s clear there was no ideological indoctrination in the Hurd household. His youngest son identified with the GOP by cultural osmosis more than anything else, and found himself voting that way in college despite having no core set of political principles; his first presidential ballot, in 1996, was cast for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton—but only, Hurd says, because of Dole’s military service.
It’s hard to believe someone who ran for student body president did so without ideological conviction or future political aspiration. Hurd, however, insists he had neither. A computer-science major with a minor in international studies, he was set on attending Stanford only to fall in love with Texas A&M during a visit. The reason: its commitment to public service. Hurd didn’t join the corps of cadets, and he wasn’t politically active, but he threw himself into every other aspect of campus life. As a senior, he decided to mount an unlikely bid for student body president. He and some friends hoped for buzz by painting hundreds of ping-pong balls with his campaign logo—a black smile on a yellow face—and dumping them into the campus fountain. But the balls washed into one corner and went unnoticed. Hurd decided at that point to try something different: meeting as many students as possible, one-on-one, especially those without a history of voting. It worked: He won the election with record-breaking voter turnout. “I learned there’s no substitute for personal engagement,” he tells me.
There were more lessons ahead, but they came at a steep price. Hurd had just fallen asleep around 3:00 in the morning in November 1999 when the phone rang. It was a friend—the older sister of his current chief of staff, Stoney Burke—telling him something had happened at “Bonfire,” the Texas A&M tradition of building and burning a mountainous, wedding-cake-shaped structure of timber every year before the Aggies’ annual grudge match against the University of Texas. The logs had collapsed, killing 12 students on the construction crew and shattering the community. Hurd found himself thrust into the spotlight, speaking at a memorial service that same day and representing the school in national media interviews ranging from CNN to NPR.
He seems uncomfortable talking about the experience, particularly when I ask how it might have shaped his approach to leadership and politics. But it’s apparent that Hurd turned heads during that tragic period on campus. Bob Gates, the former CIA director and defense secretary, was serving as the interim dean of the university’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service in 1999. He remembers being in awe of “Will’s leadership skills, comforting people, bringing people together at a very difficult time for the university.” When Gates learned that Hurd—who was taking former CIA operative Jim Olson’s course, “Cold War Rhetoric and Intelligence”—was himself interested in joining the agency, they made a strong push on his behalf. Olson warned Hurd that he was unlikely to be recruited; he was young, had virtually no global experience and didn’t even speak a second language. Yet Olson, who had taken his teaching job at the insistence of then-CIA Director George Tenet and former President George H.W. Bush, forcefully vouched for his pupil. “Because he was well-read, because of his interpersonal skills, his proven leadership,” Olson remembers of the recommendation. “My job throughout my career was to evaluate and assess people. And Will just stood out.”
Gates and Olson were thrilled at Hurd’s recruitment, and through friends at the agency kept close tabs on their prized Aggie as he accepted dangerous assignments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and elsewhere. Hurd learned Urdu, grew several styles of beards, and with his ethnically ambiguous features managed to blend into—and find his way out of—lots of dangerous situations. The feedback was universally glowing: Hurd was headed for a corner office at the CIA, and quickly. “He was really regarded as a rising star,” Gates tells me. “I had more than one conversation with people at the top”—he pauses—“They were very much aware of him.” Olson, for his part, says Hurd “had the potential to lead the organization in a very senior position.”
Gates and Olson, along with Hurd’s CIA colleagues, were stunned and disappointed by his departure—especially when they learned it was for a congressional run. They weren’t alone. “He could have done anything he wanted,” Chuck Hurd tells me. “And he went from dealing with one set of terrorists and thieves to dealing with another set of terrorists and thieves.” (The skill-set translates, as I learned when tracking Hurd off the House floor after his vote against the American Health Care Act. Seeing him on the phone but wanting a comment, I trailed him at a short distance as he weaved down a series of spiral staircases. He was five feet in front of me as we entered one final flight of stairs, yet when I emerged at the bottom—poof—he was gone.)
The shock of Hurd’s career change didn’t stop Chuck from being his brother’s most active campaign volunteer. (Will still chides him for not knowing what a primary was.) And it didn’t stop Gates from doing something he had never done. “Will is the only person I have ever formally endorsed — period,” he tells me. When I ask about Hurd’s potential, and the GOP’s high expectations for him, Gates doesn’t mask his own. “I have served eight presidents over a 50-year period,” he says, chuckling. “And I think it’s premature, but what I would say is he has the character and the integrity and the leadership skills for higher office.”
Mary Alice Hurd is less vague. More surprising than her earlier response is what she tells me when I ask where she expects her son to be in 10 or 15 years. “President,” she says.
“I’m sure you have stately feet, Sir.”
One day later, Hurd can’t decide whether to remove his shoes. The 23rd District looks like a deformed alligator whose wide-open jaws are chomping down on San Antonio from the west; we’ve traveled from its eyeball into its belly, the Monahans Sandhills State Park, where Hurd is shooting a video promoting the rolling dunes as a family vacation destination. Everything goes smoothly until Hurd reaches the scene where he’ll slide down a dune on a green toboggan. Walking across sand in expensive dress shoes isn’t a great option—just ask Richard Nixon—and neither is going barefoot. (Congressmen do have their dignity, after all.) But with a reporter watching—and Park Ranger Michael Smith promising no podiatric judgment—he can’t turn back. Hurd takes off his socks and shoes, steps onto the hot khaki sand, mumbles about his “fat ass” keeping the toboggan stationary and trudges to the top. His muttering proves prescient: Try as he might, Hurd’s sled won’t budge. (The ranger shouts that it’s the hot, sticky sand, then winks at me.) No matter. The shoot is a hit and Ranger Smith is ecstatic about the free publicity.
Of course, the park isn’t all Hurd is promoting. As a sophomore lawmaker who prior to running for Congress had never stepped foot in most of this district, shoeless or otherwise, Hurd is playing catch-up. One smart technique is to constantly advertise his visits via social media. On Sunday evening, he posts from Lum’s BBQ in Junction (population: 2,472), from a Davey Crockett statue he pulled off the highway to see in Ozona (population: 3,225) and then from a Dairy Queen just down the road. Hurd’s preferred app is SnapChat; he controls the “HurdOnTheHill” account entirely from his personal phone. He posts roughly a third of his own Instagram photos, while his staff handles his accounts on Twitter and Facebook. This system allows Hurd and his team to churn out a prodigious amount of mutually beneficial posts; constituents are happy because their schools and towns and businesses get free exposure, and Hurd is happy because he is engaging constituents every day who he otherwise might never reach.
The 23rd District poses unique challenges as a political constituency; its raw size makes true representation almost impossible. For Hurd, the overwhelming Hispanic population would seem especially problematic—he doesn’t speak Spanish, and doesn’t plan to learn it—but he says the bigger obstacle was transcending the district’s urban-rural divide. Having grown up in Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, home of metropolitan San Antonio, Hurd learned quickly in his first campaign that West Texans resented anyone from “the big city” barging into their towns without proper humility. “I had to learn to leave my suit at the Bexar County line,” he says.
This is still a work in progress. Hurd won in 2016 based on his dominance in Bexar County, where he topped Gallego by 14,000 votes. Democrats point out that Hurd lost the Hispanic vote district-wide, and rightly argue he would not have won without the Republican-heavy San Antonio suburbs. Hurd, though, won 18 of the other 28 counties that are part of the district, which suggests he hasn’t simply catered to college-educated whites. He can’t afford to: With Hispanics growing daily as a share of his voting-age constituency, and Trump proving historically unpopular early in his first term, Hurd must distance himself from the president and broaden his appeal in non-conservative precincts.
“There are a lot of second-generation people in this district, second-generation Hispanic immigrants who vote a straight Democratic ticket,” says Ruben Falcon, a councilman in Fort Stockton who is also the city’s former mayor and owner of Bienvenidos, Hurd’s favorite restaurant in the district. Falcon says he voted for both Clinton and Hurd last November, and believes the sophomore congressman is chipping away the trend of straight-ticket voting that could threaten his career. “You can tell when it’s just a bullshit handshake from a politician, and that’s not him,” Falcon says. “I think the thing that will save Will from the Trump haters is that he’s out here so much, making all these connections in these communities.”
In truth, Hurd has no choice. To survive here is to pursue every voter. That’s why we started the day in Monahans (population: 7,617), then headed to Pecos (population: 9,213) before driving back to Fort Stockton (population: 8,482), where we stayed the night before and which, with its thousands of hotel rooms, is known as the premier rest-and-refuel stop for anyone traversing these parts of Texas. Representing such far-flung, isolated areas can be torture for a politician; it also can be strangely rewarding. Hurd lights up when he talks about Loving County, which, with 95 residents (at last unofficial count), stakes its claim as the least-populated county in America. It’s a safely Republican area but Hurd was an unknown commodity when he first ventured there. “I’ve met all but 18 of them,” he tells me. “And those 18 people don’t want to be met.” Hurd won 30 of the 40 votes cast there in 2014, and 54 of its 64 votes two years later.
“He is a hard worker. He is extremely conscientious,” Ciro Rodriguez, the former Democratic congressman who represented the district from 2007 to 2011, says of Hurd. “I would disagree with him on his priorities and goals and objectives, but you have to admit, he’s a hard worker and he moves around and he’s responsive. He does all the right things from that perspective. Whoever runs against him has to match that.”
Democrats are well aware. Fed up with Gallego after his back-to-back losses and alleged lethargy compared to Hurd, they are turning to fresh faces. San Antonio federal prosecutor Jay Hulings is viewed as a prize recruit among national Democrats, but the primary could get crowded, especially if a friendlier map emerges. Emily’s List, the powerhouse pro-abortion-rights group that recruits female candidates, is said to be zeroing in on Judy Canales, a former Obama appointee who lives in Eagle Pass, as well as a mystery combat veteran from San Antonio.
Hard work is indeed necessary to win and protect a coin-flip district, but so too is the discipline—at least rhetorically—never to stray far from the middle of the electorate. Hurd, who is probably the least ideological politician I’ve ever met, had no trouble mastering this talent. At a roundtable with local officials in Monahans, Hurd emphasizes, as he does everywhere, that border security is a priority—but adds that building a wall is the “most expensive and least effective” way to achieve it. He strikes a disapproving tone on the Affordable Care Act, but tells them to “forget about the labels” of “repeal and replace” and says the only things he cares about are increasing access and decreasing costs. (It came as little surprise nearly three weeks later when he voted against Ryan’s legislation; Hurd staffers told me that day the office got hundreds of phone calls and only one was in favor.) And when asked about recent foreign policy developments, Hurd says he supported Trump’s missile strike in Syria—but speaks in cautionary tones about any American military intervention, especially on the Korean Peninsula, warning that North Korea has “the largest special forces in the world” and a leader who possesses “the capability and willingness to kill millions of people” across the border in South Korea.
Some of this, certainly, owes to Hurd’s natural pragmatism and nuance. But he’s also walking a tightrope at all times—and he knows it. The clearest (and funniest) example of this comes later Monday afternoon when, after a speech to a few dozen high school students in Pecos, Hurd asks for questions “on the CIA, Congress, robotics, anything.” The first student to raise his hand is a Hispanic kid who came in wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. “What do you think about sanctuary cities?” he asks. Hurd grimaces. “You’ve got to enforce the law. It’s that simple,” he replies. Then, without so much as blinking, Hurd adds: “Let’s talk about robotics.”
Hurd’s obsession with cultivating a centrist brand explains the now-famous “road trip” from San Antonio to Washington he took in March with Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who represents the neighboring district anchored in El Paso. It was fascinating not simply for the display of bipartisanship, but for the organic, organically funny banter between two young politicians so eager to be perceived as moderates that they jumped in the car without necessarily expecting they would come to genuinely admire one another after 30 hours together with thousands of people watching via livestream. “Will’s a great member of Congress,” O’Rourke said to the camera at one point. “And if I just allowed his party affiliation to determine whether or not we were going to work together, I wouldn’t be spending any time with him.”
Of course, this was a fuzzy sentiment wrapped in political calculation. The trip was O’Rourke’s idea, and within weeks he had launched his Senate campaign against GOP incumbent Ted Cruz; naturally he used the adventure with Hurd to sow narratives of his centrist inclinations and contrast them against his polarizing right-wing opponent. Cruz allies were somewhat annoyed, but Hurd laughs at the suggestion that he might have unwittingly aided O’Rourke’s effort to unseat his fellow Republican. “Look, a Democrat in Texas isn’t going to win a statewide election—period,” he says. “Did you tell Beto that?” I ask. Hurd grins. “He knows my opinion.”
I didn’t find one Republican complaining about Hurd helping O’Rourke. But a number of Democrats—who agree that Cruz can’t be beaten—privately grumbled about O’Rourke boosting the bipartisan bonafides of someone they have a better chance of unseating in 2018, and who they fear could grow into a force in future statewide and perhaps even national elections. The road trip, skeptics in both parties say, was more about campaign strategy than congressional bipartisanship. We all know what Beto O’Rourke got out of it. What about Will Hurd?
Two unusual things strike me about the Texas congressman. The first is that he employs numerous staff members who aren’t Republicans. His military and veteran caseworker, Jon, who lost a leg in Iraq (and has a wicked sense of humor about it) isn’t shy about denouncing the party. His district staffer, Jenny, who drove with us from San Antonio, smiles and shakes her head no when I ask if she’s a Republican. And his chief of staff, Stoney Burke, whom Hurd counts among his best friends and says will be “the only chief I’ll ever have,” used to work for Democrat Chet Edwards. When I ask Hurd about this, he looks surprised. Then he shrugs. “Your office is about getting things done for the district,” he says. “So it’s not a requirement.”
The second is that Hurd has no rehearsed answer to one of the easiest questions for a politician. After our thoroughly conviction-free discussion of how he came to identify as a Republican, I ask him which political figures were his inspirations and influences. This is a robotic answer for most everyone in his party: Ronald Reagan. And yet Hurd, despite growing up during the 1980s, struggles to produce a response. Finally, he settles on two figures: Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington. Solid choices, to be sure; they’re half of Mt. Rushmore. But neither governed in the past century nor preached any sort of ideology that translates to today’s political scene.
If anything, Hurd seems fundamentally distrustful of the GOP—especially its conservative most elements—when it comes to the treatment of women, minorities, gays, poor people and other groups. Its worst tendencies, he seems to believe, are embodied by Trump—which is maddening given they will share a ballot for the foreseeable future. “Do I have control over what he says? No,” Hurd says. “Do I have to talk that way? No. And I’m not going to.”
In some sense, Hurd’s high-profile stand against the border wall isn’t just about the wall itself. Yes, he passionately believes that a “virtual barrier”—cutting-edged fiber optic cables and high-definition cameras complimenting a few urban stretches of see-through fence, all monitored by a beefed up border-patrol monitoring the border—is a wiser use of money and a better way to protect the homeland. But he’s not entirely unique in this regard; most Texas Republicans oppose Trump’s sweeping proposal on the border. “Not even Ted Cruz, who is an idiot, and a Canadian, would agree to build that kind of wall in Texas,” Rodriguez tells me.
Hurd’s fight against the wall is sincere, but it doubles as a symbolic show of defiance against a president whose rhetoric offends his constituents and whose policies on immigration and NAFTA threaten their livelihoods in a region where the flow of people and goods underpins the economy. (To drive this point home, Hurd’s staff arranges a trip across the border to Juárez on my final day in the district. We visit a technology incubator where American teenagers are working alongside their Mexican counterparts on computer chips and Hurd, both a science geek and a promoter of international commerce, can’t hide his satisfaction.)
At one point, driving along a barren freeway with oil rigs toiling to our right, I ask Hurd how he can reconcile his approach with that of Trump, the leader of his party. “Well, he’s a member of the party,” Hurd says. “Just because somebody is in my party doesn’t mean I can’t be critical—I’ve been pretty clear about that. Yes, he’s the titular head of the party. But he’s just one person. And I completely disagree with people who say he’s the standard-bearer. There’s a lot of people that represent the Republican brand and conservatism.”
But doesn’t Trump speak for the party, I ask? “Shit, I don’t know,” Hurd says. “My thing is this: sphere of influence, sphere of control. What do I have control over? I have control over my actions and being an example to people. So that’s what I spend time on. What does that mean for the broader party?” He takes another pause. “I look to good examples in the party, people like John Cornyn. That guy is really a great example of someone that people should grow up to be like.”
It’s an intriguing answer, because some people think Cornyn—the senior senator from Texas, the more moderate counterpart to Cruz, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate—is exactly who Hurd wants to grow up to be like. Whether Cornyn retires in 2020 or seeks another six-year term is the subject of intensifying speculation back home. If he leaves, Hurd could very well be his preferred successor. But this is where the tightrope routine could backfire: Texas is loaded with ambitious conservatives who are circling any open statewide office like vultures, and Hurd has cut such a moderate profile to survive in his own district that he might be rendered unacceptable to the right in a Republican primary.
“That definitely affects his ability to run statewide,” says César Blanco, a Democratic state representative who formerly served as chief of staff to both Gallego and Rodriguez, and who is widely expected to run for O’Rourke’s seat. Aldrete, the Obama and Clinton alum, says his party can only hope that conservatives crowd Hurd out of future races. “The fact that he’s stymied because of them would be very helpful to Democrats.”
Hurd is well aware of this potential predicament and laughs at the early handicapping of his future. “Coynyn’s my boy. I’ve learned a lot from him,” he says. “He’s been incredibly helpful. And I think he’s been underappreciated. … But I’m not plotting chess pieces. I evaluate opportunities as they arise.”
He’s clearly thinking ahead, though. At one point, Hurd engages me in a long conversation about demographics and my experience covering the presidential campaign in key primary states. To the extent he’s making long-term chess moves, they are based on where the party—and his state—will be. And here’s where Hurd hints at larger aspirations, arguing that the state’s demographic transformation will produce a demand for more mainstream politicians. “Remember, everybody in Texas used to be Democrats,” he says. “The tug-of-war will be over the center. My hypothesis is that 80 percent of Americans are around the center—40 percent left of center, 40 percent right of center—and they’re all persuadable.” A minute later, Hurd adds, “I just don’t accept the premise that to win a primary you have to be the person furthest to the right.”
He appears certain to test it sooner or later. Hurd is too young, too talented, too ambitious not to push the limits and enter the arena with bigger and better competition. But first, he has to hang onto the toughest seat in Texas, one of the toughest in America, where Democrats will continue to invest millions of dollars in hopes of taking it back and kneecapping his rapid ascent inside the Republican Party. Hurd, whose twin goals in Congress are to be a leader on national security and “the gold standard in constituent services,” is growing more confident every single day, with every new social media post and every new voter he meets, that this district belongs to him.
“If you want it,” Hurd says, “come and get it.”