Congress

Will Hurd’s exit highlights a Texas-size challenge for Republicans in 2020

Democrats are going on offense, targeting multiple House seats in the Lone Star State

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, is not running for re-election. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Texas Rep. Will Hurd’s decision to retire was a gut punch for Republicans, who consider him one of their strongest incumbents in one of the most competitive districts in the country. His exit means the GOP will have to work even harder to hold on to his seat with Democrats going on offense in the Lone Star State. 

Hurd is the third Texas Republican in a week to announce his retirement, and the second to do so in a contested seat after Rep. Pete Olson, who is relinquishing his Houston-area 22nd District. Rep. K. Michael Conaway is the third retiring lawmaker, although his seat, which extends from the outskirts of Forth Worth to the New Mexico border, is not considered competitive.

“This has been a fairly shocking seven or 10 days in Texas,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is based in Austin.

Some Republicans noted Friday that Hurd was always expected to have a close race ahead of him in his 23rd District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso along the U.S.-Mexico border. He won re-election last fall  by less than 1,000 votes, and Hillary Clinton carried the district by 3 points in 2016.

But Hurd had already shown he could win tough races. Without him on the ballot, the race appears to be more favorable to Democrats. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed the race rating from a Toss-up to Leans Democratic.

Hurd’s exit could have an even longer-term impact with a new census and a new round of redistricting after 2020. Mackowiak speculated that if a Democrat succeeds him, the district could be redrawn to be even more favorable to a Democrat than its current configuration.

But in the short term, Hurd and Olson’s retirements make their seats tougher to hold in 2020.

“Two weeks ago, we knew we were going to have eight contested congressional seats in Texas,” Mackowiak said. “That map hasn’t changed. … It just raises the degree of difficulty in two of the eight districts.”

Incumbents typically have advantages in name recognition and fundraising that newcomers don’t have. And there could be more retirements to come. So far, nine House lawmakers — seven Republicans and two Democrats — have announced they are retiring at the end of this Congress, which is below the average of 23 retirements in recent election cycles.

Some retirement speculation has also swirled around Reps. Michael McCaul, Kenny Marchant and John Carter, all of whom won reelection by less than 5 points in 2018. Retirement speculation has also swirled around Rep. Mac Thornberry, who is term-limited as the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, although his Texas Panhandle seat is solidly Republican.

McCaul fundraising strong

Sources close to McCaul, Marchant and Carter said they are running for reelection. 

The source close to McCaul noted that he had the strongest fundraising quarters for an off-year in his career. In the most recent quarter ended June 30, he raised nearly $701,000, the second-highest haul among GOP lawmakers targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. McCaul has also shaken up his campaign team, has a field organization up and running, and has been running digital ads.

After Hurd’s retirement announcement, Democrats called out McCaul, Marchant and Carter in a Friday press release with the subject line “Texodus.” The DCCC has the three GOP lawmakers on its own retirement watch list and said in the release that the Republicans “are sweating bullets this morning, but it’s not from the Texas heat.”

After flipping two GOP-held seats in Dallas and Houston last fall, Democrats are bullish about their opportunities Texas in 2020. The DCCC is targeting six Republican seats in total and already has a headquarters and staff in the state, more than 15 months before Election Day.

Last cycle, the committee set up a headquarters in California, and Democratic candidates went on to flip seven GOP seats that Clinton had won in 2016. But the Texas seats could be a tougher targets, given that Trump carried each of the six districts, and will be on the ballot himself in 2020.

Democrats also see the close 2018 Senate result as a sign that Texas could be in play. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who came within 3 points of defeating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, won three of the districts the DCCC is targeting and narrowly lost the other three. Republicans say the enthusiasm around O’Rourke won’t be easy to replicate, and they expect better GOP turnout in 2020 because of the presidential race.

20 percent Hispanic growth

Democrats see the increasingly diverse suburban districts as moving in their direction, although Republicans caution that more socially conservative Hispanic voters are not solidly Democratic.

All six of the DCCC targets experienced an increase in Hispanic population between 2013 and 2017, and five of them saw growth by more than 10 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. McCaul’s district had a 20-percent increase.

“Texas is the biggest battleground state,” Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia said in a statement. “Republicans know it, and Texas Democrats damn sure know it.”

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.