By Kimberly Railey, Dallas News
Of three dozen Texas congressional races in November, only one is really up for grabs.
In West Texas, freshman Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego is trying to fend off Republican challenger Will Hurd. It’s a vast and unusually volatile district that has been represented by four congressmen in the last decade.
Low approval numbers for President Barack Obama are putting a drag on Democrats nationwide in the November midterm elections. Gallego remains confident. But Republicans and some independent analysts say he’s in a tough fight.
“This race isn’t over,” said Nathan Gonzales, a House analyst at the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. “It’s worth watching.”
In an era when most congressional races aren’t competitive, the 23rd District stands out for its high turnover among lawmakers. Its races, as a result, tend to attract outsized attention and spending, from both party organizations and outside groups.
Last week, Gallego launched the first television spot of the general election, though the district is certain to be awash in political advertising in the campaign’s final two months.
Nationally, incumbents typically enjoy a huge edge. But control of the 23rd has flipped from Democrats to Republicans and back in the last three elections. As a measure of the divisions, voters picked GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012, even as Gallego won by 5 percentage points.
The incumbent, a longtime state representative in Austin, touts his willingness to reach across the aisle and on relatively noncontroversial issues, such as improving veterans’ care. Hurd, a former CIA officer, has said voters could benefit from his national security credentials and a fresh face in Washington.
Republicans are in no danger of losing control of the House in November. They see Gallego’s seat as one of their best opportunities to pad their edge.
Given the district’s geography, immigration is a top issue.
The 23rd Congressional District sprawls along 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, which has seen a surge in Central American migrants in the past year, though most of that has been in South Texas. Most of the district’s residents are Hispanic.
Hurd and other Republicans criticized Gallego when he stood by Obama’s decision not to visit the border in July during a visit to Texas. Since then, Gallego has invited House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to the area.
Gallego has pushed for increased security at the border, while also backing a comprehensive immigration overhaul — an approach that would provide legal status and an eventual path to citizenship for 11 million people in the country illegally.
Like most Republicans in the House, Hurd opposes that.
“Pete’s done a good job at balancing the need we have for immigration reform as a whole but also saying we need border security,” said Colin Strother, an Austin-based Democratic strategist. He worked for Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, in the district before the Legislature redrew the political map.
In July, Gallego opposed a GOP-backed bill that would speed deportations of the unaccompanied minors, calling it “political theater.” The legislation, which passed the House, is dead on arrival in the Democratic-run Senate.
Hurd said he supported funds that the bill would have provided for the National Guard and other border security measures. But he wouldn’t say whether he would have voted for the deportation bill.
He is more eager to talk about security than changes to immigration policy.
“Spending nine years in the CIA as an undercover officer, I spent some time on some pretty nasty borders,” said Hurd, who collected intelligence in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. “I know a little something about protecting folks.”
The GOP nominee vows to cut government spending. Both men vow to promote small business.
On most issues, Gallego portrays himself as a voice of moderation, in tune with a district that is split nearly evenly along party lines.
“In a lot of districts, you just have to talk to one part of the population or another,” he said. “But for me, I have to talk to everybody.”
That can be challenging in a district that stretches from El Paso to San Antonio, spanning 29 counties and two time zones.
Hurd ran for the seat in 2010, losing the GOP primary runoff to Francisco “Quico” Canseco. Canseco went on to oust Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a San Antonio Democrat.
Two years later, Gallego fended off the former congressman in the primary and ended up unseating Canseco.
So far, Gallego has raised $1.7 million against Hurd’s $719,000. But Hurd spent much of that in a primary against Canseco and another rival. At the end of June, Hurd had just $150,000 left.
The incumbent has more than $800,000. And the party is ready with reinforcement. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved $940,000 worth of airtime for pro-Gallego ads. House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, has set aside about $221,000.
That’s enough for a torrent of ads, though the groups could decide to pull back and shift money to other contests in the final weeks.
“If you see Democrats start to spend a lot of money, that’s evidence they see a potential problem,” said Gonzales, the elections analyst.
The district has been a magnet for outside attention. In 2012, party committees and other groups spent nearly $6.3 million to woo voters. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $1.6 million. The Democrats’ campaign arm spent $1.7 million, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.
In August, Rothenberg shifted its assessment of the race from “Democrat favored” to the less-certain “leans Democrat,” along with five others across the country. That means Gallego is still seen as more likely to win, but his climb has gotten tougher.
“This race is coming back on the board,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist in Austin and Washington. “The congressional ballot looks good for Republicans.”
Both candidates claim the momentum, though. And both have been barnstorming the district.
“By the numbers, it’s competitive,” Gonzales said. “In Texas, there aren’t a lot of competitive races.”