On the Road With Will Hurd, the Bipartisan Candidate in Search of a Base
It is the stuff of viral internet legend now. After snow disrupted their flights, Will Hurd, the former Republican congressman, and Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from a neighboring district, climbed into a rented Chevy Impala and took a cross-country road trip from their home state of Texas to Washington.
As they live streamed what they called “a bipartisan town hall” to millions of Americans on Facebook and Twitter, featuring hourslong policy debates on health care, singalongs to Willie Nelson and doughnut runs, the two captured the national attention as Americans watched them cultivate a friendship, even as they disagreed.
More than six years later, on a sunny day this July, Mr. Hurd was on the road again, this time as a longer than long-shot presidential candidate, a moderate whose penchant for bipartisanship puts him at odds with the party’s current mood.
Riding in a rented gray S.U.V. and cutting through the wooded highways of New Hampshire, he was seeking the spotlight once again, in a race for the Republican nomination that is being driven by some of the party’s loudest and most partisan voices.
“Have I changed my opinion that more unites us than divides us? No,” Mr. Hurd said, recalling the lessons he took from his trip with Mr. O’Rourke. “People were craving something different — craving it.”
Mr. Hurd, 45, wants to show voters that he brings something different to the race. A Black Republican who has represented a majority Latino district and wants to broaden his party’s appeal , he is not, as he puts it, about “banning books” or “harassing my friends in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”
It’s a hard sell in a primary that so far has been dominated by culture-war issues that are the focus of the front-runners as well as by the legal issues surrounding former President Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Hurd has the most difficult of paths ahead. He has been on the campaign trail for only a little more than a month and is lagging behind his opponents in staffing, name recognition and fund-raising. The latest quarterly filings showed he had just $245,000 in cash on hand.
He may fall short of the qualifications for the first Republican primary debate on Aug. 23, which requires candidates to draw a minimum of 40,000 unique donors and at least 1 percent of voter support in three approved polls.
Even if he were to meet those requirements, he still might not get on the debate stage: He has refused to fulfill the Republican National Committee’s most disputed stipulation, that candidates sign a pledge to support their party’s eventual nominee. Not having a seat at the debate table means losing the most important lever to gaining attention in the primary.
At a pit stop outside Manchester, Mr. Hurd said he had no issue with championing another Republican. But he said he would not support Mr. Trump. “I’m not going to lie to get a microphone,” Mr. Hurd said, digging into a Philly cheesesteak and salty fries.
Back on the road, Mr. Hurd did not downplay the challenges. In interviews, town halls and political events, he is often quick to refer to himself as a “dark horse” or “a start-up,” meticulously targeting the kind of voter that data suggests might be most open to his background and message. Those voters, he added, include a cross-section of people — Republicans, independents and moderates — who are tired of the toxicity in politics, reject Mr. Trump and want someone with a vision for the future of the Republican Party. Proving that group of people indeed exists as a coherent base of support will be the ultimate test of his candidacy.
Mr. Hurd’s charisma and enthusiasm for wonky policy comes across in one-on-one conversations, but it remains to be seen how well his expertise will translate on the stump. At a 2024 presidential candidate speaker series at Dartmouth College, where he arrived that afternoon, an audience of more than 50 people seemed to gradually warm up to Mr. Hurd after a stiff start.
“We are in a competition — the Chinese government is trying to surpass us as a global superpower," Mr. Hurd said, warning that A.I. could lead to unemployment but could also help bridge inequality in education. “And I’m very specific. I say, the Chinese government. It’s not the Chinese people. It’s not the Chinese culture. It’s not Chinese Americans.”
In the audience, Alice Werbel, 78, a retired nurse practitioner who drove in from Norwich, a bedroom community in Vermont, said she saw Mr. Hurd as “up and coming” and commended him for his courage in refusing to sign the debate pledge.
But when Mr. Hurd’s remarks concluded, she did not seem convinced he had a road to the presidency. She said she planned to vote for President Biden in 2024.
“Biden should appoint him technology czar or A.I. czar or cabinet secretary of technology,” she added.
Afterward, at a dinner where Mr. Hurd spoke with a small group of students, Josh Paul, 21, a conservative and a government major, was not sure if the Texas Republican could pull off a win either, but he said he was going to help Mr. Hurd try. He had found Mr. Hurd’s rejection of Mr. Trump so refreshing that he sought out a campaign staffer to sign up as a volunteer.
“I don’t understand how, if conservatism is all about fidelity to your oath and to the Constitution, how you can possibly sit silently by while this guy lies and lies and lies and incites an insurrection,” Mr. Paul said, referring to Mr. Trump and the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
For three terms, Mr. Hurd represented one of the most competitive congressional districts in the country — a wide, largely Hispanic area that stretches from El Paso at the western tip of Texas, all along the nation’s southwestern border, to San Antonio. The only Black Republican in the House when he announced his retirement in August 2019, Mr. Hurd said one of the reasons he was leaving Congress was to help diversify his party’s ranks.
Mr. Hurd has been a fierce and consistent critic of Mr. Trump but has remained a steadfast Republican with conservative values. Before the students at Dartmouth, he said he would be willing to sign a 15-week ban on abortion, with exceptions for certain cases, such as rape or incest. Like his Republican rivals of color, he walks a thorny line between rejecting the existence of a system of racism in America while describing situations that appear to fit the definition.
On the road trip through New Hampshire, he said that when his parents first arrived in San Antonio, they had to live in the only neighborhood where an interracial couple could buy a home. “There are still some communities that don’t have equal opportunity,” he said. But, “I don’t know if I’d call that systemic racism. I don’t call it that.”
At a Friday town hall at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, Thalia Floras, 60, a district retail manager and undecided Democrat, said her one concern with Mr. Hurd was his support for a ban on abortion. Yet she appreciated that he seemed open to listening to opposing views and did not resort to using phrases like “woke mob” or “radical left.”
Marie Mulroy, 75, a retired public health worker and an independent raised by a Republican mother and Democratic father, said she had donated to Mr. Hurd because he was compassionate, liked to work across the aisle and had “a better understanding of the world and where we are going in the future.”
In every good political argument, she said, “you have to have the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. But, “we don’t get the synthesis anymore,” she said. “And this is where the voters are — the voters are sitting in the synthesis.”
Jazmine Ulloa covers national politics from Washington. Before joining The Times, she worked at The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and various papers in her home state of Texas. More about Jazmine Ulloa
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