The Texas 23rd Congressional District that sprawls out from the U.S.-Mexico border is once again mired in a partisan tug of war as a Latino Democrat tries to capitalize on Donald Trump's immigration, border wall agenda to unseat the Republican incumbent who ousted him two years ago.
Pete Gallego, the former congressman from the district, is determined to unseat incumbent Rep. William Hurd. After getting elected in 2012 by a 5 percentage-point margin, Gallego then lost to Hurd in 2014 by 2 percentage points.
In 2016, Donald Trump is at the top of the GOP ticket by eliminating 16 rivals on a platform that included severe immigration crackdowns, anti-Mexican rhetoric and promises to build a border wall.
Gallego is hoping a vote against Trump will continue the partisan ping-pong to his favor.
In the last decade, CD-23 has been represented by four different congressmen and has been traded back and forth between parties, making it one of the less than 5 percent of House races in 2016 considered "toss-ups."
It also is a majority-minority district making the partisan back-and-forth stand out even among swing districts, which are generally majority white. And in the 2014 mid-term election another layer was folded into the political story when Hurd, a Republican African-American, was elected to represent the majority Democratic and Latino district.
Hurd is keenly aware of the district’s ping-pong history, “While the history of the district seems to indicate another flip, the people of Texas 23 don’t want another flop that will come from two more years of former do-nothing Congressman Pete Gallego,” said Eliezer Flores, a spokesperson for the Hurd campaign. Each candidate knows that securing two terms in the district would help solidify electoral safety in the future.
He's also aware of potentially being weighed down in the district by Trump. He has not endorsed Trump and said that he is reserving that until he shows he can respect women and minorities and has a national security plan. He has been hammered by Democrats and Gallego for refusing to say whether he'll vote for Trump.
The 23rd Congressional District spans two time zones and is larger than the state of New York. It stretches across almost the entirety of the Texas-Mexico border starting from El Paso, hooking in parts of Central Texas including San Antonio and going down past Eagle Pass. It is a largely rural district and close to three-quarters Latino who make up 52 percent of the eligible voter population.
Texas’ CD-23 has been a majority-Latino district since the early 1980s. Albert Bustamante, a Democrat held the seat from 1984 until his defeat to Republican Henry Bonilla in 1994 who went on to hold the seat for over a decade.
So how does a Republican Latino (outside of Florida) win in a majority Mexican-American district? Following the 1990 Census, Texas was granted three new congressional seats. One of the new seats, CD-28 also was drawn as a majority-minority district and butted up against CD-23. The 28th congressional district pulled down it’s neighbor's Latino population, while at the same time preserving a strong base of Republican support in San Antonio and El Paso.
The new partisan and ethnic makeup of CD-23 and the political skills of Rep. Henry Bonilla, allowed him to keep the seat for 12 years, although the district was growing more Democratic in the latter years.
In 2003, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Republican, was instrumental in the mid-decade redistricting of Texas that favored Republicans. In the case of CD-23, the district was carved up so that fewer Latinos were included in the district and more Republicans from West Texas were drawn in. Then in 2006, the Supreme Court stepped in, ruling that the more Republican district violated the Voting Rights Act and had to be redrawn. And here is where the partisan musical chairs began.
In 2006, Ciro Rodriguez, the congressman from the neighboring 28th district unseated Bonilla. Then in the 2010 Republican takeover, Quico Canseco handily beat Rodriguez. However Canseco didn’t have time to get comfortable because two years later Democrat Pete Gallego took his place, only to be beat in 2014 by Republican Bill Hurd.
The recent back-and-forth is dizzying. And it is no coincidence that the partisan changes track whether the congressional race is during a presidential or mid-term election. In the last presidential election, close to 60 percent of eligible Texas voters turned out. Two years later, Texas turnout was only at 33 percent. The pattern repeats itself over and over. In presidential years Latinos turn out in higher numbers, turning CD-23 blue and in mid-term years more reliable Republican voters flip it back to red.
Gallego knows all too well about the presidential versus mid-term cycle. However, he says, “I have always fared better than other Democrats and achieved a high number of crossover votes. In 2014, I ran seven points ahead of the Democratic ticket, while Mr. Hurd ran eight points behind the Republican ticket.” Gallego also points out that he received close to 80 percent of the Latino vote in what is supposed to be a Latino district.
The 23rd Congressional district is just barely a majority Latino and Democratic district. Add to that the fact that Latinos have the lowest turnout rate of any group. This helps explain why the GOP has been able to win the district during mid-term elections, when turnout is down across the board and especially for Latinos.
However, Manny Garcia, the deputy director for Texas’ Democratic Party, sees this trend diminishing and Democrats being able to keep the district in mid-term elections as well.
Because of its extreme swing nature, CD-23 also attracts moderate candidates — on both the Republican and Democratic side. In the current race, both candidates are also particularly strong. Hurd, the Republican, is a rising star within his party. He is young, handsome, telegenic and has foreign policy experience from the ground up, having served as an undercover CIA officer in the Middle East and South Asia.
Gallego, the Democratic challenger, had a long and respected career in the Texas House of Representatives where he helped establish the state's DNA database. His agricultural and rural roots have helped win him some support across the aisle. He has also stood out as a national leader on Latino issues, for example helping establish the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs.
The Democrats have a bit of an advantage in this presidential year. Donald Trump doesn’t make things any easier for moderate GOP candidates. A recent poll from the Texas Democrats has Gallego with an eight-point lead.
Nevertheless, the Republican Party is focused on keeping the seat and spending generously to do so – just recently the National Republican Congressional Committee added over $1.5 million to TV advertising reservations in the district.
But the question is whether Hurd can fight two battles – one against Gallego and one against Trump. Trump’s border wall and immigration rhetoric is hitting what is home for many of the district's Latinos or close to it. And Trump’s recent doubling down on his restrictionist immigration policies has made life that much harder for Hurd.
Less than two months out it looks like the 23rd District will go back to its flipping ways. But in politics a week is an eternity and anything can happen.