The Revenge of the Normal Republicans

Will Hurd thinks there are enough normal voters to deliver him the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But is he right?

Will Hurd
LeAnn Mueller

About the author: Tim Alberta is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.

HELOTES, Texas—Last spring, having just retired from Congress, Will Hurd was feeling adrift. He had agreed to write a book, telling his remarkable life story and diagnosing a malfunctioning political system, all while teasing out a run for the presidency in 2024, but Hurd struggled with an underlying anxiety. For the first time in his adult life, the guy who’d climbed so quickly—from college class president to star CIA operative to lone Black Republican in the House—didn’t know his next move. Finally, Hurd sat down with his nearly 90-year-old father and shared his concerns.

“William, I can’t give any advice on what you should do, because I don’t understand any of these things,” Bob Hurd told his youngest son. “But I know what you shouldn’t do. Don’t be desperate. Because when you’re desperate, you make bad decisions.”

The former congressman tells me this story on the back patio of El Chaparral restaurant, one of his favorite haunts, in suburban San Antonio. We’re drinking Ranch Water—tequila and lime juice over ice, with a splash of mineral seltzer—and comparing notes on his book, American Reboot, which splices together riveting tales that help illuminate his views of a Republican Party that’s rotting from the top down. But the book doesn’t contain the story about this father-son talk. Rather, the anecdote surfaces organically when I ask Hurd about his brutal indictment of the GOP and how that has changed his relationships with the likes of Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik, party leaders whom he once considered close personal friends.

“Some of my friends, some of my former colleagues, they are desperate,” Hurd tells me. “They are so desperate to hold on to their positions, to hold on to their power, that they make really bad decisions.”

Those bad decisions are evident when it comes to big, history-forming events, such as the party’s enabling of Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy. But the bad decisions are also made subtly, in response to smaller episodes every single day, often to accommodate the party’s ugliest impulses. (The third chapter of Hurd’s book, written as an open letter to the Republican Party, is titled “Don’t Be an Asshole, Racist, Misogynist, or Homophobe.”)

The desperation—lawmakers catering to the loudest voices in the party base—is not healthy, Hurd says. It’s the by-product of safely partisan districts that provide more incentive to light fires than put them out. It’s the consequence of the public’s collapsing faith in the core institutions of civic society, which invites national politicians to weaponize disputes that should be addressed at the local level. It’s the expression of a country in decline—a country convinced that its existential concerns are not Chinese sabotage and Russian disinformation, but face masks in public and vaccines for a virus.

“We’re in a competition. If we don’t win it, we’re going to be a former superpower,” Hurd says. “We need to treat it as a competition—us versus the world. But we can’t, because our politics are so messed up. We’re too busy fighting with ourselves.”

Hurd’s book is notable for many reasons—his personal and professional journeys are legitimately compelling—but most of all for its rebuke of America’s proportionality problem. Drawing on his diverse experiences, from chasing down intelligence overseas to parsing classified documents in Congress to working with groundbreaking tech companies today, Hurd argues that we are woefully unprepared for what is coming our way. Quantum computing has the potential to break every form of encryption that guards our money and our secrets. Artificial intelligence could cut the service-based workforce in half—every two years. Biomedical advances will force questions about the ethics of rewiring our brains and halting the degradation of human cells. In the meantime, China will continue its siege of the American economy—swiping our intellectual property, snatching up our real estate, sabotaging our investments—while Russia will intensify its decades-old campaign to delegitimize our systems of government and turn Americans against one another.

His subtext is plain enough. To confront these challenges, Hurd’s colleagues in the Republican Party might need to rethink their fixation on transgender athletes and critical race theory.

“Everyone treats everything these days like it’s some damn emergency. And it’s got to stop,” Hurd says. “We’re going to be dealing with issues that are so complicated, and so life-altering, that they make the stuff we’re dealing with right now look like tickle fights.”

Hurd proposes a wholesale reorientation of our politics—away from the dopamine-inducing cultural conflicts of the day, and toward the generational trials that will shape American life in the 21st century. To pull it off, he says, we’ll need both a groundswell of reasonable people reclaiming the political discourse from absolutists and ideologues, and innovative, unifying leadership at the highest levels of government.

Hurd knows that these two conditions are codependent: A leader can’t emerge without a movement, and a movement manifests only with the inspiration of a leader. He also knows that some people view him as uniquely qualified to meet this moment: a young, robust, eloquent man of mixed race and complete devotion to country, someone whose life is a testament to nuance and empathy and reconciliation.

What Hurd doesn’t know is whether America is ready to buy what he’s selling. The nation has been lulled into long-term complacency by elected officials and special interests and media personalities that have short-term motivations. The most engaged voters in his party—the people likeliest to cast ballots in a presidential primary—are, to varying degrees, addicted to the fear and grievances being peddled by people clinging to relevance. Hurd realizes that breaking this addiction won’t be easy. In fact, it might prove impossible.

He does, however, see another path forward—one that depends less on persuading those hardened partisans and more on mobilizing a different kind of voter. The overwhelming majority of conservative people in this country, Hurd says, are not watching Fox News every night or imbibing conspiracy theories online. They are not politically neurotic. In fact, they may have never voted in a primary to choose a nominee for president—and that’s the point. “They have been busy trying to put food on their table, put a roof over their head, take care of the people they love,” he says. “But now they’re getting fed up. They are tired of everybody. They are ready for something different.”

Like what?

“Something normal,” Hurd says.

Every politician has an origin story. But I’ve never listened to one as telling—and infuriating—as Will Hurd’s.

In 2008, the young CIA operative was stationed in Afghanistan. He had been an unlikely recruit to the agency; having majored in computer science at Texas A&M, Hurd once dreamed of making a fortune in the tech world. But serendipitous encounters with CIA veterans on the A&M faculty had transformed his curiosities, and several years into the War on Terror, Hurd had emerged as a vital asset in the Middle East. After a bombing near the CIA compound, Hurd was tasked with briefing a group of lawmakers from the House Intelligence Committee, who happened to be visiting Afghanistan. When he began to explain the nature of the local rivalries between Sunni and Shia factions in the region, one of the congressmen interrupted. He asked Hurd what the difference was between a Sunni and a Shia.

Hurd thought it was a joke. He waited for the punch line. But it never came. The congressman’s expression made it apparent that he, as well as others in the room, did not understand the basic distinctions at the heart of this war zone. Here were federal lawmakers—members of the intelligence committee—who could not be bothered to understand the place where they were sending trillions of dollars to fund wars in which young Americans would fight and die.

The episode confirmed Hurd’s worst suspicions about American politicians: that they were lazy, ignorant, and selfish. (Some of the members of Congress he spoke to that day, he writes in his book, grumbled that the briefing was keeping them from shopping for local rugs.) Hurd was so enraged that he decided to quit the CIA, move home, and run for Congress.

The workhorse reputation Hurd earned on Capitol Hill is best viewed through this prism: the endless weekend drives through the loneliest corners of his district, the obsession with basic constituent services, the determination to gain expertise on every issue before him, the reflex to ignore partisan squabbling and pass legislation on a bipartisan basis. It also explains Hurd’s impatience with far-right and far-left partisans who hail from safe districts where no meaningful work is required to win reelection every two years—and who, in between social-media feuds and cable-news speeches, disparage people like him as languid “moderates.”

“The moderates are the ones who behave the same way regardless of whether their party is in power or not. The moderates are critical to crafting and passing legislation that actually gets signed into law. The moderates are the ones who work the hardest,” Hurd writes in his book. “And we are the ones who get shit done. Extremists do the most bitching and get the least accomplished.”

It’s true that Hurd has never been driven by any particular ideology. He hired a number of Democrats for key positions in both his D.C. and local offices—a practice that’s virtually unheard of on Capitol Hill—and, when in search of legislative partners, defaulted to looking across the aisle before recruiting fellow Republicans. Once, while we were driving together across a barren stretch of West Texas, I spent an hour pressing Hurd to explain why he considered himself a Republican. He rambled a bit, recalling that his first-ever vote was for Bob Dole (but only because of Dole’s military service). He talked about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. Then he pivoted to standard fare about too much government impeding human progress. Finally, he shrugged. “Look, my hypothesis is that 80 percent of Americans are around the center—40 percent left of center, 40 percent right of center,” Hurd told me. “And they’re all persuadable. The letter next to my name should matter less than my message.”

Hurd’s book—and to an extent, his prospective presidential candidacy—should not be read as an attempt to erase the differences between the two parties. Rather, it is a rejection of their fringes, and of the false choices that frame much of our political debate. Even when it comes to subjects as fraught as abortion or Second Amendment rights or the definitions of human sexuality, Hurd argues that there are broad areas of agreement obscured by the incessant demagoguing of partisans who stand to benefit from sowing narratives of zero-sum division.

Take the issue of immigration. The nadir of Hurd’s time in Congress came in early 2019, when the federal government shut down for a record-setting 35 days because of a stalemate over which policies to fund—and how much money should be spent—at the southern border. For 35 days, Hurd watched the leaders of both parties scheming, wrangling their rank-and-file members, figuring out how to emerge victorious from the standoff. Never once in those 35 days did anyone, in either party’s leadership, solicit an opinion from Hurd—a national-security expert, the member who represented more of the U.S.-Mexico border than anyone else in Congress, a guy who’s studied the issue inside and out.

Why wouldn’t they want Hurd’s input? Simple. Because they knew he wasn’t going to tell them what they wanted to hear. They knew Hurd would offer a set of solutions—the mass streamlining of legal immigration for both high-skilled workers and low-skilled laborers; the construction of a cutting-edge “virtual wall” utilizing cameras and fiber-optic cables to monitor illegal crossings; the granting of citizenship to millions of “Dreamers”; the surge of funding to local agencies dealing with a mass influx of asylum seekers—that would antagonize the loudest voices in both party bases.

“So, nothing gets done,” Hurd says. “Because politicians would rather use it as a bludgeon against each other, as opposed to solving a problem that most Americans, Republicans and Democrats, agree on the solutions to.”

The beating heart of Hurd’s book is a call to Americans to consider the most contentious issues of our times more holistically. He’s not under any illusion that consensus will magically appear. But he does believe that most voters—what he describes as the 80 percent clustered within range of the middle—are tired of being presented with binary choices when it comes to big, complicated questions.

In one passage, Hurd describes his anguish over the murder of George Floyd. It was made that much worse by the reductive scrutiny of his own actions in the volatile aftermath: As the lone Black Republican in the House of Representatives, Hurd felt as though anything he said or did—such as marching with protesters in Houston, over the objections of his staff—was perceived as picking a side. In his view, there were no sides.

“I wanted to show solidarity with Black America. I wanted to explain it was okay to be simultaneously outraged by a Black man being murdered in police custody, thankful that law enforcement puts themselves in harm’s way to enable our First Amendment rights, and pissed off that criminals are treading on American values by looting and killing police officers,” Hurd writes.

“These emotions,” he concludes, “aren’t mutually exclusive.”

None of this means Hurd wants to be a great reconciler of the two parties. Just because he can envision leading a post-partisan movement, does not mean he expects—or hopes for—some cease-fire between Republicans and Democrats. He believes that competition between two healthy parties is essential to a functioning democracy. He just doesn’t believe we have two healthy parties.

Hurd makes no secret in the book of his scorn for the ascendant progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Its crusade against oil and natural-gas production, he says, endangers hundreds of thousands of good-paying American jobs and would make the U.S. dependent on some of the world’s worst actors to supply our energy. Its stigmatization of law enforcement—calls to defund the police, or abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or slash the budget of the U.S. Border Patrol—invites an era of lawlessness and violence and death, particularly along the southern border. These two issues alone, Hurd says, explain why Latino voters are rapidly disaffiliating with the party.

“When I was in Congress, I was the only Republican on the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Now there’s the potential that three of the five [Texas] border seats are going to vote Republican. The border district in Arizona is probably going to flip too. Why?” Hurd tells me. “Because you have Democratic mayors and sheriffs and county judges that are sick and tired of national Democrats talking down to them. For those Latino communities, border security is a public-safety issue. Oh, and by the way, most of those folks on the border know somebody who works in the energy sector. So they feel like Democrats aren’t just putting them in danger; Democrats are trying to dismantle their way of life.”

That said, Hurd saves his harshest commentary for his own party.

Republicans have become comfortable “saying or doing anything to win an election,” Hurd writes. The party of family values champions cruel policies and hateful politicians while lecturing the left on morality. The party of fiscal discipline and personal responsibility blows holes in the budget, then blames Democrats for their recklessness. The party of empowerment and opportunity systematically attempts to disenfranchise voters who are poor and nonwhite. The party of freedom and liberty keeps flirting with authoritarianism.

Hurd’s most pressing concern for his party is that it’s become an agent of disinformation. This is not a uniquely Republican phenomenon, he emphasizes—the book contains a blistering critique of Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for leaking faulty information regarding Trump colluding with Russia—but it’s the Republican Party’s embrace of lies and propaganda that most immediately threatens our system of government. Hurd says that watching the January 6 assault on the Capitol, just three days after his retirement from Congress, felt like he was watching a sequel to 9/11—extremism infiltrating America in a new form.

It was “an example of the kinds of internal threats many of our military leaders have cautioned our political leaders to take as seriously as external threats,” Hurd writes. “To prevent future manifestations of this threat from materializing, the Republican Party must drive out those who continue to push misinformation, disinformation, and subscribe to crackpot theories like QAnon.”

But that’s not happening. Just as Hurd was shipping his book to the printer, the Republican National Committee met in Salt Lake City. Its 168 members—three from each of the 50 states and six territories, elected at the local level by party activists—adopted a resolution censuring the two House Republicans working on the January 6 investigation. The resolution also called the insurrection “legitimate political discourse.”

Hurd was dumbfounded. He believed that Trump deserved to be impeached—not just for inciting the violence at the Capitol but also for his recorded phone call with the Georgia secretary of state, in which the president asked a top election official to falsify ballots. (Hurd says these circumstances differ from Trump’s first impeachment, which he agonized over and ultimately voted against, because there was “a clear violation of the law” in the run-up to January 6.) Letting Trump off the hook, Hurd says, was bad enough. For the Republican National Committee to gather more than a year after the insurrection and pass a resolution justifying the death and destruction at the U.S. Capitol was a “new level of crazy”—and, to him, proof that the party needs an intervention.

The irony, I tell him, is that these are the people—the best-connected local Republican leaders—who will play an outsize role in determining whether an intervention is successful. These are the people who do the most influencing and organizing and favor-trading in their state parties. These are the first hands he’ll have to shake in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina if he decides to run for president.

Hurd stares at me blankly. Finally, he arches an eyebrow. “Why?”

Because, I explain to him, these are the gatekeepers to the presidential process. Even Trump, who ran the most unconventional campaign in modern history, had to kiss some rings and grease some palms.

Hurd is still blank-faced. “That’s how things have always been done in the past,” he says. “But why does it have to be that way?”

I ask Hurd what he would propose instead.

“Look, there’s some people I’m not going to appeal to—the right-wingers. That’s okay. But there’s more of the other people. The normal people. And I’m going to find them,” he says. “It will be hard. The cost per acquisition of those voters is higher than it is for the traditional Republican primary voter—you know, the people who have voted in the last four primaries. That’s why most people don’t bother trying to find them or turn them out.”

Wouldn’t it be easier, I ask, to just concentrate on wooing those existing likely voters?

“Maybe,” he says. “But if you want to change the party, you need to change the primary electorate. This isn’t rocket science. If you want to get back to normal, you need to get more normal people to vote in primaries.”

It’s a provocative notion. Hurd isn’t just hinting at a campaign against Trumpism; he’s suggesting an assault on the structural realities of the Republican Party.

Contemplating this sort of insurgency is one thing when the GOP is locked out of power. But come November, Republicans are likely—based on all the available evidence—to rout Democrats in the midterm elections. If that happens, the loudest and most radical elements of the Republican Party will be emboldened, and any incentive to moderate the party’s identity will seem lost.

Hurd acknowledges this. But if past is prologue, he says, Republicans will do little with their newly won power in 2023. Congressional leaders will struggle to corral their rambunctious majorities; the party will succeed in frustrating Joe Biden’s agenda but fail to provide any governing vision for the country; and by 2024 the country will be forced to choose between two dug-in, do-nothing parties.

“At that point,” Hurd says, “Maybe people will feel like it’s time to get off this crazy train.”

It’s possible, Hurd tells me, that such continuing dysfunction will push voters deeper and deeper into their partisan silos. His hope rests on a belief that they’ve been pushed too far—and that sooner or later, they’ll push back.

“Look, if you’re a left-wing nut or a right-wing nut, you’re probably not going to smell what I’m cooking,” he says. “But most people aren’t nuts. They want to solve problems. They want to make this century an American century. They are normal people who want normal leaders.”

Hurd is putting the pieces in place. His friends say he wants to run for president in 2024. He may not have universal name recognition or a behemoth political operation, but he does have a vision. He has a loyal and growing donor base. He has the biography and the charisma and the God-given political chops to put the Republican Party—and the rest of the country—on notice.

People close to Hurd thought he was crazy to abandon a future corner office at the CIA to run for Congress. (Bob Gates, the former defense secretary and CIA director, lobbied furiously to keep Hurd from leaving the agency; then, pitying his former Texas A&M pupil, Gates did something he’d never done in his life: He wrote a campaign check.) The young candidate said the same thing to every donor and party official he met: “You don’t need to think I can win; you just need to think it’s not crazy.” That’s the same approach the 44-year-old bachelor envisions taking in a campaign for national office.

Hurd is the definition of a boom-or-bust candidate. He could go all the way to the White House; he could also go nowhere fast. Everything we know about politics in the Trump era suggests that the second outcome is far likelier than the first. But Hurd says he’s not worried about that. Because the only thing worse than being defeated is being desperate.