Congressman Will Hurd faces one of the most competitive congressional midterm elections in the entire United States, convincing voters who live with President Donald Trump’s contentious border wall debate in their backyards to vote for his vision for border security.
But on this hot summer day at a district town hall at Rudy’s BBQ in the border town of Del Rio, Texas, everyone can find agreement with Hurd on the politics of a place half a country away.
“Washington is a circus, y’all,” Hurd says, drawing appreciative laughs from the crowd.
The line appeals to Democrats, Republicans and independent voters alike. Hurd will need every one of them after winning his last election by just 3,000 votes.
The district is one of a handful nationwide that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election while sending a Republican member of Congress to Washington.
Hurd, an African-American representing the majority Latino 23rd congressional district, is paving his own path through the immigration debate by distancing himself from the expensive wall promised by his party’s leader, Trump. He argues the canyons, lakes and deserts in his district form natural barriers, negating the need for a costly continuous physical wall in some areas of the border.
Border security talk
This summer tour of ice cream shops and restaurants is Hurd’s opportunity to make that case to his constituents.
“We talk about border security a lot and people have been interested in hearing more about the (Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology) SMART Act and the idea of having a smart wall,” Hurd told VOA about his technology-focused legislation to secure the border.
With the most miles of U.S.-Mexico border -- more than 800 -- of any member of Congress, Hurd is a key voice in the immigration discussion in the U.S. Congress. But back home in Texas, his bipartisan approach risks losing more conservative constituents who support Trump’s security measures.
Lee Weathersbee, a former Del Rio city councilman and Trump supporter, is one of them. He says he understands Hurd’s push to improve the technology available to U.S. Border Patrol but doesn’t always like the approach Hurd takes with the leader of his own party.
“How stupid does Will Hurd think Donald Trump is to remind him you can’t build a wall underneath Lake Amistad?” Weathersbee said, referring to one of the natural barriers along the border in Del Rio.
Like Weathersbee, a former Democrat turned Republican, Texas' 23rd congressional district defies definition.Stretching from the suburbs of San Antonio to the Mexican border, it’s bigger than 29 U.S. states.
In Eagle Pass, Texas – where the existing fence cuts across ranches, baseball fields and even a golf course – it’s immediately clear at Hurd’s town hall that Trump’s border wall would have a major impact.
“We can’t think of the border as this homogenous area – y’all know that better than anyone, right? And we’ve got to look at every mile in a different way,” Hurd told a group of about 60 voters gathered at a restaurant in Eagle Pass.
“Don’t experiment with us!” Eagle Pass resident Enrique Barrera told Hurd. “We have suffered all our lives with this threat and you tell us we don’t deserve a wall. We do."
“It needs to be stopped and we need your help,” Eagle Pass resident Enriqueta Diaz said to Hurd, telling him undocumented immigrants coming over the border are straining local services and putting the burden on U.S. taxpayers.
Both voters said they were pleased with how Hurd acknowledged their concerns and would still vote for him despite different approaches to border security.
Pete Gallego, the former Democratic congressman who lost to Hurd by just a couple of thousand votes in each of the last two congressional elections, said the independent-minded voters of the Texas 23rd will question Hurd's record.
“He’ll tell you he’s against a physical wall, but he voted for the funding for the physical wall and that doesn’t harmonize very well,” Gallego said.
The border wall funding was included in a larger spending bill that also funded the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
San Antonio-based activist Rosey Abuabara is already mobilizing district voters against Hurd, providing information on his policies and his voting record.
“He’s doing these town halls and he’s coming off as 'bipartisan Will,' ” said Abuabara, co-chair of the TX 23rd District Indivisibles group. “We’re hitting him as Democrats, we’re hitting him hard hopefully, and a lot of Republicans are unhappy."