Politics & Policy

Will Hurd Has Defied Both Liberals and Donald Trump. Is He the Future of the GOP or a Party of One?

The outspoken congressman left a promising career in the CIA and became a rising Republican star. But his political balancing act is dicier than ever.

Photo Illustration by LeAnn Mueller
Photo Illustration by LeAnn Mueller

Will Hurd opened with a joke.

“Oh, you want to ask me about the wall? I was figuring we’d talk about the Spurs,” he said. “We’re talking about the Spurs’ victory last night, is that right?”

It was a chilly February morning in Washington, D.C., and Hurd, a Republican congressman representing Texas’s Twenty-third District, which includes more than a third of the U.S.-Mexico border, had just strolled into one of the U.S. Capitol’s television studios to answer questions from a local station back home. Dressed in a navy suit, red tie, and wing tips, he had folded his six-foot-four, 235-pound frame into the studio’s floral-upholstered armchair, and now he pressed his fingertips together in a contemplative pose.

Hurd’s position on border security was no secret. Since December, when Donald Trump had forced a 35-day federal government shutdown because Congress wouldn’t give him $5.7 billion to fund his “big, beautiful” wall, Hurd had distinguished himself as one of the president’s most vocal opponents. He’d called the wall a “third-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem” in an interview with Rolling Stone. He’d told a panel on CBS This Morning that “building a wall from sea to shining sea” would be “the most expensive and least effective way to do border security.”

And as Hurd sat inside the Capitol TV studio, he voiced his frustration yet again. “We shouldn’t be negotiating on the backs of eight hundred thousand federal employees,” Hurd said. “We’re not going to solve the entire problem of homeland security within this next year, so we should be moving forward on things like technology within our ports of entry.”

Hurd needed only a few minutes to deliver his message. Then he stood up, thanked the crew, and hurtled toward his next appointment, joining the stream of besuited congressional staffers power walking through the underground tunnels that connect the Capitol to surrounding office buildings. Hurd was outpacing just about everyone.

“Aguilar!” he bellowed when he spotted California Democrat Pete Aguilar a few steps ahead. Hurd caught up, placed his right hand on his colleague’s shoulder, and shared a few private words. “One of my best friends in Congress,” Hurd explained, turning back to me. The pair had cosponsored a sweeping immigration bill, the USA Act, that hadn’t made it to the House floor, but Hurd was still relentlessly pushing it.

Then it was up the stairs to the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building, past the office of Elise Stefanik, a centrist New York State Republican (“My homegirl!”), and into his chambers, where he’d sit for a couple more interviews before leaving to review impending legislation, maybe grab a quick lunch on the run, and make his way outside to speak at a press conference to advocate for bipartisan immigration reform.

By the time Hurd arrived, several news cameras were already set up, and behind a lectern stood some forty Dreamers—undocumented men and women who were brought to the U.S. as children and whose legal status had been in limbo since Trump rescinded Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. Hurd was part of a lineup of speakers that included Washington state congressman Dan Newhouse, a fellow Republican, and when Hurd took his turn behind the lectern, he wondered aloud why Congress couldn’t reach a Dreamer deal, blaming both parties for the gridlock. “For some reason, leadership in the House of Representatives prevents bringing a bill to the floor,” Hurd said. “In the 115th Congress, last Congress, it was Republican leadership. Under the 116th Congress, it’s Democratic leadership that’s preventing this from happening.” It was time, Hurd said, to do the reasonable thing.

Afterward, everyone wanted face time with Hurd. Reporters wanted to ask him questions. Dreamers wanted selfies with him. He enthusiastically obliged these requests, even as a senior staffer gently tried to pry him away. “Last selfie,” the staffer said at one point, before Hurd took several more. Finally turning to his next appointment, across the street at the Library of Congress, the congressman again broke into his purposeful gait. A reporter approached. Could she ask him one follow-up question?

“We can do a walk and talk,” he said, striding across the Capitol lawn as he described the tactics he and a few like-minded colleagues could use to push a Dreamer bill to the floor.

If Hurd seems like the kind of earnest character who could have sprung from Aaron Sorkin’s imagination to star on a season of The West Wing, that’s because in a party that has played ever more stridently to an older, white, nativist base, he has stood firm against the tide. He is exuberant and wonky. He extols the virtues of bipartisanship. He believes that climate change is man-made and that humans should be decent. (“Don’t say racist things, don’t be a misogynist, and show people that you actually care about them,” he told me.) He also happens to be young (41), a proud veteran of the deep state (he spent his twenties as an undercover CIA operative in South Asia), and the only African American Republican in the House of Representatives. In tone, temperament, background, and worldview, Hurd has carved out a space as the anti-Trump.

Hurd at Fiesta San Antonio in April 2017. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Hurd meeting Gloria Serna prior to a ceremony celebrating the naming of the Tornillo port of entry after her father, the World War I hero Marcelino Serna. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Left: Hurd at Fiesta San Antonio in April 2017. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Top: Hurd meeting Gloria Serna prior to a ceremony celebrating the naming of the Tornillo port of entry after her father, the World War I hero Marcelino Serna. Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When Hurd arrived in Congress, in 2015, he wasn’t such an outlier. During his first term, he was a reliably partisan Republican. He denounced the Iran nuclear deal. He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He blamed the Obama administration for the rise of ISIS. He confronted FBI director James Comey at a hearing, saying it was “outrageous” that he had declined to recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted for her handling of classified emails (within ten days, a Fox News clip of Hurd’s remarks got over seven million views online).

But Trump’s ascent shifted Hurd’s position in the political landscape. Trump had launched his presidential run by promising that he would build a border wall, and soon after taking office, he began attacking the credibility of the intelligence community. “As a person who has a unique background on this, it’s my responsibility to speak up,” Hurd told me.

Hurd objected (loudly) to most of the key planks of the president’s agenda. When Trump enacted his de facto Muslim ban, in January 2017, Hurd called it the “ultimate display of mistrust” that “endangers the lives of thousands of American men and women in our military, diplomatic corps, and intelligence services.” In June 2018, after Trump’s administration implemented a zero-tolerance immigration policy, leading to thousands of children being forcibly separated from their parents, Hurd pronounced the policy “unacceptable” and “something that as Americans we shouldn’t be doing.”

When Trump backed Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community at a summit in Helsinki, in July 2018, Hurd wrote in a New York Times op-ed that the president had “actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial and weakened the credibility of the United States.”

When Trump’s insistence on border wall funding resulted in the shutdown, Hurd repeatedly bucked the vast majority of his own party, voting alongside as few as four of his fellow Republicans to keep the government running without funding the wall. When Trump later declared a national emergency to build the wall without congressional approval, Hurd decried the move as a “dangerous precedent” and voted to try to block it.

Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke ascending the steps of the U.S. Capitol after completing a highly publicized “bipartisan road trip” from Texas.CQ Roll Call via AP Images

These stances have endeared Hurd to Democrats. Aguilar told me, “Will has developed a reputation as someone who wants to be collaborative.” In March 2017, Beto O’Rourke took an impromptu (and live-streamed) road trip with Hurd from San Antonio to Washington. O’Rourke came away impressed, calling Hurd “a great member of Congress.” (The trip earned them an award from Allegheny College for “Civility in Public Life.”) After Hurd expressed support for investigations into the Trump administration on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, another guest on the show, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, exclaimed, “He’s sounding more like a Democrat every day!”

But Hurd remains a tax-cutting, regulation-slashing, U.S.-Chamber-of-Commerce-approved conservative, and he’s maintained broad support within his party. Earlier this year, while he was consistently voting with Democrats to end the shutdown, Republicans named Hurd to the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most prestigious assignments in Congress. In a press release announcing the news, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican with close ties to the president, hailed Hurd as “one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial members” of Congress.

Conservatives who are hostile to Trump’s rise have come to see Hurd as even more than that: a guardian of the old soul of the party. “He’s reflective of a Republican ethos that has existed and has, I think, been very persuasive for a lot of Americans for a long time. It’s just that this space that we’re occupying now is consumed by a form of Trumpism that smacks at that ethos every day,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In the 2018 midterms, as Democrats picked off dozens of swing-district Republicans, Hurd managed to win reelection by striking a difficult balance: he disavowed the president, maintained the support of the base, and siphoned off just enough crossover votes.

Joe Straus, the moderate Republican former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, told me, “I think he is Exhibit A in Texas for what the future of the Republican Party needs to be.”

A few days after I’d power walked with Hurd around the Capitol, I met him in the western reaches of his district. At our first stop, in Marfa, he hopped into the driver’s seat of my rented Hyundai Accent, fastened his seat belt, and turned to me. “That’s the first thing you learn in the CIA,” he said.

I looked at him, puzzled.

“Put on your seat belt,” he said. “Put on your seat belt and lock your doors, because I could snatch you out of the car in under two seconds, and if you have your seat belt locked and your doors locked, no one’s going to get in and get you.”

He’d already been on the road for six hours that day, driving to Marfa from his home in the San Antonio suburb of Helotes, and now he’d be making the much shorter trip from Marfa to Alpine. The lesson in CIA tradecraft continued as we pulled out of town, past the mansard roofs of the Presidio County courthouse and onto a lonely desert stretch of U.S. 90.

“If your door is locked, hit the gas. Seventy-five percent of the time when someone approaches a car, people hit the brake rather than hitting the gas. But part of the training is that when something happens, hit the gas.”

Hurd stays in almost constant motion. Texas’s Twenty-third Congressional District is famously vast, spanning from San Antonio to El Paso, and if you spend more than an hour in Hurd’s presence, you’re likely to hear him rattle off the details of precisely how vast it is: “Twenty-nine counties. Two time zones. Eight-hundred-twenty miles of border. Takes ten-and-a-half hours to drive across it. It’s larger than twenty-six states, roughly the size of Georgia.”

Hurd maintains five district offices across the region, and depending on the week, he’ll fly from Washington to El Paso or Midland instead of back to his native San Antonio, living out of hotels. (He is unmarried and has no children.) Every summer, Hurd stages a tour called DC2DQ, in which he visits all 29 counties and hosts as many town halls at Dairy Queens as possible. The campaigning and traveling never end. “I don’t think people understand how much we crisscross this district,” he told me a little wearily.

The Twenty-third isn’t just big, it’s electorally fickle. Until last year’s midterms, it was considered the only swing district in Texas, and between 2008 and 2014, when Hurd won for the first time, it toggled back and forth between the parties every two years. Since then, the district has trended Democratic. In 2012 Mitt Romney won the Twenty-third by nearly 3 percentage points. In 2016 Hillary Clinton bested Trump by 3.5 percentage points. In 2018 O’Rourke beat Ted Cruz there by 5. Hurd, however, has thus far been able to defy political gravity.

He failed in his first bid for the seat, in 2010, losing a primary runoff to San Antonio businessman Quico Canseco, who went on to win the general election. After Canseco was unseated in 2012 by Pete Gallego, a longtime Democratic state representative from Alpine, Hurd decided to make another run at it. In 2014, battle-tested and better funded, he beat Canseco in a primary rematch and then defeated Gallego in the general election by 2,422 votes. Within a few weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced its plans to unseat him. “Will Hurd shouldn’t unpack,” a DCCC spokesperson said.

But Hurd has kept winning, each victory more improbable than the last. In a 2016 rematch with Gallego, Hurd increased his margin of victory to 3,051, despite robust Democratic turnout. In 2018 Hurd was presumed to be a dead man walking. His opponent, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, raised more money than he did, and as the election neared, it looked certain that the Republicans would lose control of the House. Of particular interest to the Democrats were the thirteen congressional districts across the country that had backed Romney in 2012 and flipped to Clinton in 2016. Republicans held each of them, and Democrats thought they had a good chance to take all thirteen. Instead, they won twelve. Texas’s Twenty-third was the only exception, as Hurd squeaked past Jones by a mere 926 votes.

Why had he prevailed? The congressman thought the lesson was simple. “It starts with a recognition of reality,” Hurd told me. “If the Republican party in Texas doesn’t start looking like Texas, there will not be a Republican party in Texas. It’s easy to talk about conservative principles to a conservative audience, but we got to take the message to communities and the people that don’t necessarily ID with our brand. That’s what we’ve been doing for four years.”

Hurd’s continued success in the Twenty-third isn’t unlikely simply because he’s a Republican; it’s unlikely because he’s Will Hurd. Hurd is an African American raised in the San Antonio suburbs. He represents a largely rural district that’s 71 percent Latino (Hurd was the first non-Latino congressman elected in the district since 1984). What’s more, before 2009, when Hurd launched his first congressional bid, most of the Twenty-third was unknown to him. He hadn’t so much as visited anywhere in the district west of greater San Antonio. Hurd decided not to hide this. “Don’t fake the funk,” he explained to me.

Hurd is the son of a black father from the East Texas town of Marshall and a white mother from Indiana. For much of his early life, his father, Bob, worked as a traveling salesman, peddling zippers, threads, and yarn, while Hurd’s mother, Mary Alice, maintained the home. Bob was a proud Republican—he says he’s been a member of the party “since Lincoln freed us”—but the Hurds didn’t dwell much on politics, nor did they have any political aspirations for their three children. When asked by a Politico reporter what she thought about having a U.S. congressman as a son, Mary Alice deadpanned, “It’s his problem, not mine.”

Hurd was the baby of the family, and as he tells it, “whenever my brother or sister wanted to watch a movie, they’d always make me ask. I’d have to ask Mom and Dad for stuff. I was always asked why I was good in diplomacy. Basically, my brother and sister always made me make all the requests.”

Hurd was interested in math, computers, and robotics, and in high school, he had his heart set on attending Stanford University, which he saw as a launching pad for a career in technology and science. Hurd got accepted, but a school counselor kept bugging him about visiting Texas A&M. Reluctantly, Hurd finally agreed to check it out. “I was like, ‘Will you leave me alone if I go?’ And he said yes, so I went. And I fell in love with the place.”

The big draw for Hurd was campus life, what Aggies call “the other education,” and from the start of his stint in College Station, he threw himself into as many activities as he could. He created an executive lecture series that brought business leaders like Southwest Airlines cofounder Herb Kelleher to campus; managed a friend’s successful campaign for student body president; and began working his way up the ladder at the Memorial Student Center, A&M’s student union, which he wound up leading in his fourth year, overseeing a $5.6 million budget.

Hurd with his family at his Texas A&M graduation in May 2000. Courtesy of Will Hurd
Hurd as Texas A&M student body president, sitting next to George H. W. Bush during a televised service after the November 1999 Aggie bonfire collapse. Courtesy of Will Hurd
Left: Hurd with his family at his Texas A&M graduation in May 2000. Courtesy of Will Hurd
Top: Hurd as Texas A&M student body president, sitting next to George H. W. Bush during a televised service after the November 1999 Aggie bonfire collapse. Courtesy of Will Hurd

By then Hurd had become one of the most visible students on campus, known to everyone from newly arrived freshmen to A&M’s then president Ray Bowen. Hurd’s friend Stoney Burke, who became his first congressional chief of staff, told me, “I remember being at Kyle Field for a football game, up on the third deck, and everybody knew Will. There was ‘Will! Will! Will!’ You could tell he already had that presence and persona about him. He was a magnet that people were drawn to.”

Hurd double-majored in computer science and international relations, and he stayed a fifth year to complete his coursework. That also gave him the opportunity to run for student body president. At the time, A&M’s elections had been dominated by the Corps of Cadets, the renowned ROTC-like program, which often voted as a bloc for a Corps candidate. Hurd wasn’t in the Corps, but his popularity around campus helped mitigate that disadvantage. “Will actually had a big group of Corps supporters,” said Joni Carswell, a close friend of Hurd’s who worked for his campaign. (Carswell is Burke’s older sister.) “We had Corps people on our campaign staff that went and talked in Corps dorms about Will instead of the Corps candidates.”

Hurd won, becoming only the third black student body president in A&M history. He took the job seriously, considering himself the “mayor of a moderate-sized town.” In an article in the Battalion, A&M’s student newspaper, Hurd is described as beginning his day in his office “by catching up on 150 daily emails he receives and the homework that comes from a 12-hour class load.” Hurd attended “at least 20 meetings” a week and spent his afternoons “returning the nearly 25 phone calls he receives every day, making notes for one of his 15 weekly speeches, or connecting with his vice presidents to keep them informed on the workings of his administration.”

A few months into his term, his responsibilities took on a far greater weight. Early on the morning of November 18, 1999, Hurd was awakened by a call from Carswell. A group of students had been out at the campus polo fields, constructing a massive log tower that was scheduled to be burned a week later, an A&M tradition known simply as Bonfire. At 2:42 a.m., the tower had collapsed, crushing dozens of students.

Hurd threw on a sweater and hurried out to the scene. By then, hundreds of students had joined EMTs from College Station and Bryan, trying to free the trapped students. Hurd did what he could to help organize the furious rescue effort, but as the extent of the tragedy became clear—12 dead, 27 injured—his role shifted. He spoke at memorial services, comforted grieving families, and appeared on TV, serving as one of the community’s most visible spokespersons. (Describing Hurd in the aftermath of the Bonfire calamity, Paul Burka wrote in this magazine, “Just the way he sits in a chair communicates gravitas; he seems to be propping up its back instead of the other way around.”)

Hurd’s handling of the Bonfire collapse caught the attention of Robert Gates, the former CIA director and future secretary of defense, who had recently been named the interim dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service. “He shared in the sadness and the agony of the experience with everybody,” Gates remembered, “but he brought a calm and a leadership in terms of directing the sadness in a positive direction.”

Student leadership at A&M had long been a stepping-stone to a career in state and national politics. Former governor and current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry had been an Aggie yell leader. Fred McClure, the first black student body president, had gone on to work in senior positions in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. John Sharp, the former state comptroller and current A&M System chancellor, had been student body president too. But Hurd had no plans to go into politics, at least not right away. In the spring of 1998 he had taken a seminar called “Cold War Rhetoric and Intelligence,” taught by a longtime CIA officer named James Olson. Olson would regale the class with stories of his spy-versus-spy battles with the KGB in Moscow, and Hurd was transfixed. He had been considering a job with IBM, but Olson encouraged him to apply to the agency. It didn’t take much convincing. “I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to go to exotic places,” Hurd said.

Publicly, Hurd claimed he was joining the State Department, but those close to him sensed his assignment might not be so straightforward. “I can remember having conversations with him: ‘Will, I’m going to sound like your mother now, but good Lord, you got to be careful,’ ” Bill Kibler, then a student-affairs administrator at A&M and now the president of Sul Ross State University, told me. “I said, ‘I want you to come back safely. You got a lifetime of service ahead of you.’ ”

Hurd began his CIA training soon after graduating from A&M, in the spring of 2000. At the time, the agency’s priorities ranged from post–Cold War operations in Russia to the counternarcotics fight in South America, and as a young recruit who still hadn’t begun his operational training, he could have ended up with any number of assignments. But the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath defined his career in the agency. He actively sought out a counterterrorism assignment with the agency’s Near East Division, grew out his beard, and learned what he calls “survival Urdu.” For the next eight years, Hurd served in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. His cover job was mundane, stamping visas on the consulate line and chaperoning dignitaries on official visits. But his real assignment was as a CIA case officer, an intelligence gatherer tasked with spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting assets who could give the United States insight into the workings of foreign governments.

While Hurd was abroad, Gates and Olson kept tabs on him, and they both heard that he was earning high marks. They weren’t surprised. “I would say the most important factor in becoming a successful case officer in the CIA, going out and recruiting agents and so on, is people skills,” Gates said. “You have to be probably the best salesman there possibly is, because you’re essentially selling betrayal of your government. So it requires an extraordinary degree of personal skills, and I thought that Will had those people skills.”

By the time Hurd made it to Afghanistan, his final assignment, he was supervising a team of eight to ten officers while also collecting intelligence on his own. “He was running some very sensitive operations, very hard to do in a war zone, the guy in the alley at three in the morning kind of thing,” said Philip Reilly, who supervised the CIA’s day-to-day operations in Afghanistan.

Reilly told me that Hurd also developed an equally important skill: convincing decision-makers to pay attention to his findings. “He has an ability to speak truth to power,” Reilly said. “Will was able to report accurately information that oftentimes may have gone against the conventional wisdom or what the military may have thought was the way things should be going. And he did it in a way that didn’t break china but made people say, ‘Wait a minute. He’s got a point here.’ ”

Had Hurd stayed at the agency, his future seemed limitless. “He was regarded as somebody who someday could lead the Clandestine Service,” Gates told me.

But Hurd wasn’t a lifer. While giving confidential briefings to members of Congress, he was struck by the fact that many lacked even a rudimentary understanding of key issues on which they were voting. In 2008, after a bombing near the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Hurd discussed the situation in Afghanistan with members of the House Intelligence Committee. One of them, he recalls, didn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, even as that sectarian division had pushed post-invasion Iraq to the brink of civil war.

“It was shocking to me,” Hurd said. “I don’t expect you to be a savant, but you should know the basics. You have people that are supposed to be making the right decisions making terrible decisions.”

During one trip back to Washington, Hurd caught up with his old A&M friend Stoney Burke over dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill. Burke had recently finished a stint as a legislative aide to congressman Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat, and as Hurd expressed his frustration with the elected officials he’d met, Burke asked if he’d ever considered running. “I just kind of ignored it,” Hurd said.

But Burke kept pressing. He knew Hurd saw himself as a Republican, so he set up a meeting with an experienced GOP staffer named Josh Robinson to discuss his options. “Josh was like, ‘Have you ever thought about District Twenty-three?’ ” Hurd recalled. “And I’m like, ‘What’s District Twenty-three?’ ”

Hurd began to give it serious thought. A Democrat, Ciro Rodriguez, had won the district in 2006 and held it in 2008, but with Obama in office and the economy still in shambles, 2010 was looking more favorable for Republicans. Gates remembers going to a CIA facility on a visit to Kabul (“Frankly, because they made really great hamburgers”) in early 2009 and running into Hurd. The then undercover agent told the then secretary of defense he was planning to leave the agency and run for Congress.

“I was pretty blunt,” Gates told me. “I said, ‘I don’t know why anybody would want to be a member of the House of Representatives, because as a brand-new member you’ll have to serve five terms before they even recognize you when you put your hand up.’ But I think it was pretty clear he had decided that he wanted to take a different path, and I basically wished him well.”

On August 19, 2009, his thirty-second birthday, Hurd officially separated from the agency. The next day, he told me, he went public with his past and his future. “I sent an email to ten thousand of my closest friends, and I’m like, ‘Guess what? I’m running for Congress! Oh, and by the way, I was actually in the CIA.’ ”

Hurd at his home in Helotes in March 2019.Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

“I get in trouble for saying this, but I consider education a national security issue,” Hurd said, looking out at a group of some thirty teachers, administrators, students, and parents gathered on Presidents’ Day in the Marfa High School auditorium.

Hurd was perched on the edge of the gym’s wooden stage, his legs dangling as he scribbled notes in a red Moleskine planner. The day before, Hurd had gone on CBS’s Face the Nation and decried Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency. But in Marfa, Hurd was in information-gathering mode. He’d come to the school, in part, to discuss the federal college-readiness program Gear Up, and he wanted to know how it worked in a rural community like Marfa. How did students learn about different college options?

“The way my students talk about college, they talk about San Angelo, they talk about UTEP, Sul Ross, and those are all good schools, but it’s very geographically limited,” a teacher told Hurd. “And the way they’re thinking about themselves kind of reflects that.”

When do students go on college visits? How involved are their parents? How could we encourage those parents to get more involved?

“Feed them,” another teacher quipped, to a roomful of laughs.

“Once they’re in the program, do we have stats? Do they stay in? How many go on to college?” Hurd continued.

An administrator said they did keep stats, but he didn’t know them off the top of his head.

“I have, like, a million questions. I’m sorry,” Hurd said.

Hurd wanted to know what he could do to help, and the superintendent of the Marfa school district lamented that it was a challenge to get area companies to offer internships to their students. “Give me a list of the top five companies in the area you wish would take interns,” Hurd said. “I’d be more than happy to ask, ‘Hey, why aren’t you guys involved with this?’ ”

When Hurd decided he was leaving the CIA, he anticipated the Face the Nation part of his job a lot more clearly than the Marfa auditorium part. He wanted to go to Congress because he realized he was already a heck of a lot more prepared than “the people on these committees that don’t know what they’re talking about.” His vision of the gig was Washington-centric: hearings, votes, becoming a strong voice on American foreign policy. Shortly after getting elected, Hurd acknowledged he didn’t see himself representing just the citizens of the Twenty-third Congressional District. “I’m also up here representing those people that are willingly putting their lives on the line to protect us,” he said.

But Hurd quickly realized that the citizens of the Twenty-third District would take up more of his time than he had thought, so he decided he would have two areas of focus. “If you ask anybody on the team what are the two goals, they’ll all say ‘Lead in national security and be the gold standard in constituent relations.’ ” Hurd knows that the second part is key to keeping the seat.

Hurd wanted me to know about his efforts to improve the flood-prone runway at Laughlin Air Force Base, in Del Rio. He told me how, in 2017, his office had successfully pushed to rename the border crossing near Tornillo after Marcelino Serna, a Mexican-born veteran who was one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I. And he said he’d been surprised by how many of his constituents relied on him. “There’s a lot of people that need to battle the federal bureaucracy, and honestly, for a lot of people, the only person they have is their member of Congress.”

After leaving Marfa High School, Hurd dropped by Sunshine House, a senior home and Meals on Wheels provider in Alpine, where he barraged constituents with more questions: What books do you need? Can I go with you to deliver meals next time I’m in town? What about additional funding?

“We can be helpful in advocating for some of those federal programs. That’s an easy request,” Hurd told a Sunshine House board member. “I don’t need to be convinced. I like hitting nails. Just tell me where the nail is.”

Finally, there was a ceremony to inaugurate a new water truck for the Brewster County Road and Bridge department that had been purchased in part with USDA funds. Hurd’s office had smoothed the way, and he wasn’t shy about taking a bow. As he posed for a photo with a dozen or so county workers, he mused, “Kissing babies and cutting ribbons: those are my two favorite things.”

It was said with a grin, but it wasn’t really a joke.

Between stops at Sunshine House and the water-truck ribbon cutting, Hurd pulled over at a coffee shop in Alpine. The air was warming, the sky was blue, and Hurd was looking forward to sipping a vanilla latte out on the patio. But his moment of zen was interrupted.

“You got a minute for me to plug my special interest?” a Marfa resident named Gretel Enck asked, approaching Hurd.

“Sure!” he said.

Enck—who in an online bio describes herself as a “friend, adventurer, stargazer, writer, bodhisattva”—is the volunteer president of a nonprofit that is restoring a formerly segregated Mexican American schoolhouse and trying to turn it into a national historic site.

Hurd asked if she had been in touch with the National Parks Conservation Association. She hadn’t. No problem; he could help. “I’d be connecting y’all with them to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make this happen,” Hurd said.

Enck was pleased, but before she left, she wanted to thank Hurd for something else: his opposition to the wall.

“That takes a lot of courage, considering you’re bucking your own party there, and we appreciate it,” she said.“I just feel like, if people really knew what the border was like, there’d be a sea change of public opinion.”

“I try to bring a lot of my colleagues down to see it,” Hurd told her. “I probably need to bring about 212 more down here, but the good thing is, they’re starting to listen. Nobody’s ever told me, ‘Will, you’re absolutely wrong.’ Nobody’s ever said that.”

Hurd’s success as a politician has depended on his ability to balance seemingly opposing interests. He needs liberal voters like Gretel Enck to thank him for taking a stand for the district. And he needs those Republican colleagues he wants to bring down to the border to continue seeing him as one of their own.

In his successful 2014 campaign, Hurd attracted a heavy-hitting list of Republican supporters, including Gates, who made his first endorsement ever in a House of Representatives race, and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, whose political arm, Americans for Prosperity, bought advertising to support his candidacy. Once Hurd arrived in Congress, leadership treated him as a rising star, making him chairman of the brand-new Subcommittee on Information Technology and allocating millions to his reelection effort. “He was groomed on the fast track within the Republican caucus, and that’s due to him being exceptionally intelligent, very charismatic, and very well prepared but also being one of the few to represent the minority members of Congress for the Republican party,” said Mark P. Jones, a Rice University political scientist. “There’s very strong desire among national Republicans to protect Will Hurd.”

Hurd addressing the Republican National Convention as a candidate in August 2014.Nam Y. Huh/AP

Hurd’s apostasies against Trump have done nothing to diminish this. In his 2018 reelection fight, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Koch brothers backed him once again. Part of the reason was strategic. As Joe Straus told me when he sized up the Twenty-third District, “Will Hurd’s probably the only Republican who could win it.”

But Hurd was also a true believer, an enthusiastic proponent of the 2017 tax bill who told me, “The principles and theories of the Republican party have the better solutions.” 

Democrats intent on unseating him have seized on Hurd’s Republican loyalty to question his bipartisan bonafides. In 2018 the popular data-crunching website FiveThirtyEight had found that Hurd voted in line with Trump’s positions 95 percent of the time, and the number became a campaign talking point. “When you vote with this administration ninety-five percent of the time, to me you’re hardly independent. You’re hardly a moderate,” his Democratic challenger Gina Ortiz Jones said last year. “Will Hurd does one thing in the district and votes another way in D.C.”

Jones’s campaign launched a website called Hurd’s Hypocrisy. If Hurd believed so strongly that a wall was the “most expensive and least effective way to do border security,” then why had he voted for a security bill that included $1.6 billion in wall funding? (Hurd said it included other important programs.) If Hurd was so committed to giving Dreamers a path to legal status, then why had he supported ending President Obama’s DACA program, which did just that? (Hurd cited executive overreach.) Hurd had strongly opposed Obamacare, but when Paul Ryan’s Obamacare replacement bill came up for a vote on the House floor in May 2017, Hurd was one of just twenty Republicans to oppose it. Democrats applauded the vote, but some chalked it up to nothing more than expediency, a politician doing what he thought was necessary to protect his seat. (Hurd said he rejected the Ryan bill because it failed to increase access to health care and decrease costs.)

These charges failed to derail Hurd’s reelection, but the question remains: Can Hurd continue his balancing act in 2020? Trump will be back on the ballot, Democratic turnout is likely to be robust, and the DCCC is once again gunning for Hurd’s seat. Can Hurd move further to the center, craft more bipartisan deals, and still be a Republican golden boy? Hurd only seems willing to drift so far. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if he’d consider voting for his friend Beto O’Rourke for president, Hurd replied that he planned on voting for the Republican nominee—even if the nominee was Trump.

“Will has a really difficult line to walk because he is trying not to alienate the middle-of-the-road people in the district, and he’s also trying really hard not to alienate the right, and you can’t have it both ways,” said Pete Gallego, Hurd’s two-time opponent. “People send me snapshots of his Facebook pages, and the right is out there. They’re unhappy. And the Democrats, if you give them a choice of voting for Will or voting for a Democrat, I think especially today, they’re going to vote for a Democrat.”

Hurd remains confident. “I’m winning in a district that Trump lost and Ted Cruz lost,” he told me as we were driving out of Alpine toward his next stop in Fort Stockton. “We obviously understand how to navigate this.”

Back in Marfa, when Hurd had first entered the high school auditorium, he’d been greeted by a 34-year-old history teacher named Rick Treviño. Hurd had met him before. Treviño, a 2016 Bernie Sanders volunteer, had run in the Democratic primary for the Twenty-third District, hoping to be the one to oust Hurd. (Treviño lost to Jones in the primary runoff.) Nine months removed from that race, the two men greeted each other with smiles and a bro hug. Hurd and his district director, Justin Hollis, ribbed Treviño about his hair, which he’d grown out since his congressional bid, chiding the teacher that he needed to trim it. But Treviño wanted to talk business.

Treviño thought Hurd’s politics were “completely misguided,” but he still hoped that Hurd was enough of a maverick to surprise the establishment. “You have a unique position in the Republican party,” Treviño said. “You know what you can speak out on and what you can’t.”

Treviño had a pitch for him, something bold, bipartisan, sure to be popular. “I got an idea,” he said. “You call up AOC [freshman New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a hero to liberal Democrats] and sponsor free college.”

Hurd grinned. “You find out how to pay for it!” he said.

“Audit the Pentagon, bro,” Treviño replied.

“That’s not going to be enough,” Hurd shot back. “But here’s what we can do.” And with that, he began to talk about instituting more rigorous college accreditation standards. Treviño, though, quickly lost interest.

As Hurd walked away, Treviño told me he’d keep pitching his idea. Maybe the Koch brothers wouldn’t like free college, but if they wanted to keep a Republican in the Twenty-third District of Texas, did they really have a choice other than to keep backing Will Hurd? 

“He could do it, bro,” Treviño told me. “They wouldn’t do anything to him.” 

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Middle Man.” Subscribe today.


Magazine Latest