Will Hurd is the kind of politician who loves to find the middle ground. He spent six years as a Republican congressman from one of the most competitive districts in the country, a sprawling expanse that traces the southwest border of Texas along the Rio Grande. He’s got the jocular manner of a student-body president—which he was, at Texas A&M—and styles himself as a wonkish policy guy. “You said the magic word,” he told me cheerfully when I called him up recently. “I love complicated. I love nuance.”
Middle ground is hard to find in the Republican Party these days, though. Before he left Congress following the 2020 election, Hurd was the only Black GOP member of the House. (Two Black men are part of this year’s freshman Republican class.)He was consistently ranked as a relatively bipartisan member of Congress. Many of his former constituents are Latino voters, whom the Republican Party is focused on winning. Theoretically, Hurd is exactly the kind of politician Republicans should want in office. And yet he spent quite a bit of time over the past four years pushing back against the leaders of his own party. During his last two years in office, in particular, he was among the House Republicans who voted least frequently with Donald Trump. The most prominent young figures in the GOP are not moderates like Hurd, but vocal firebrands such as freshman Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado and freshman Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “We have some serious, generationally defining challenges that we have to address, and these politics are getting in the way of having real discourse,” Hurd said. “That’s where I get frustrated.”
I talked with Hurd about whether the Republican Party has done a good enough job signaling to voters that it doesn’t want to be just a political home for white people, and whether the GOP has room for stars who want to do more than own the libs. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: Texas picked up a couple of seats in the census. Is this good for Republicans?
Will Hurd: It is good for Republicans. It gives us an opportunity to grow the party. When there’s open seats, you generally have fresh faces.
Green: There’s been a lot of talk, especially in 2018, about Texas going blue. How does that stack up with your experience about where the state is going?
Hurd: The reason everybody’s talking about Texas going purple—or blue—is because of demographic trends. There’s this notion that as Texas becomes more Latino, that is going to benefit the Democratic Party.
I think the two takeaways of the 2020 election were, No. 1: Don’t be a jerk. And No. 2: Don’t be a socialist. When you look at the border of Texas, which is heavily Latino, why did we see increases in Republican voters? Part of it was because of this notion that the Democratic Party supports open borders, defund[ing] the police, defund[ing] ICE—they’re against even natural gas. Along the border, something like 40 percent of those families are connected to law enforcement. And then another large percent is connected to the energy sector. Voters believed the Democratic Party was going to be against our livelihood.
It goes back to the autopsy of why Mitt Romney lost in 2012. It basically said: Republicans need to stop talking to ourselves—we need to talk to a broader audience. And if we do that, we’re going to be successful, especially in a place like Texas.
Green: I want to push back on that a little bit. The conventional wisdom of the Trump years was that the autopsy report was not only wrong, but dead. Trump defied everything that was in that report. He spent his campaign and the past four years really leaning hard into the Republican base. And he was able to do that, by the way, while also driving up support from Latino voters in 2020. Do you still think the autopsy report should guide where the Republican Party is going?
Hurd: President Trump defied the autopsy report, there’s no doubt about it. I also think we don't appreciate how bad of a candidate Secretary Clinton was. But when you look at the 2020 election, most Republicans significantly outperformed President Trump at the ballot box. That's why I go back to “Don’t be a jerk.” We proved on the national level that it didn't work.
I don't think it’s a strategy that can survive beyond him. The opportunity we have is to attract disaffected Democrats.
Green: Because of where your district was, you spent a ton of time talking with Latino voters. How do you get those voters to feel like they belong in the Republican Party?
Hurd: Here’s the secret sauce: Everyone—I don’t care what country you come from, Latino, African American—you care about putting food on your table, a roof over your head, and making sure that the people you love are healthy and happy. When you talk about those issues, that's going to resonate.
Too often, we get caught up in the conversations going on on social media and cable news. When I went into these communities to do town halls, nobody brought up those issues on the chyron at the bottom of the newscast. They cared about making sure their kids were going to be able to be competitive and go to college. They wanted to make sure that the industry they're working in was going to survive. They cared about having good roads. They cared about border security—for people who live on the border, it’s called public safety.
Green: In Texas, the state party didn’t invest money in getting the census distributed until really late in the game. And at the national level, the Trump administration attempted to insert a citizenship question, which a lot of people thought was an effort to try to disincentivize Latinos from answering the survey. But if what you’re saying is true, counting Latinos is potentially going to be part of Republican success in Texas, not a deficit. I wonder if you think the Republican Party hamstrung itself.
Hurd: There’s folks who believe that more people voting or engaged in civic society is going to be bad. If you’re afraid of new voters, then to me that's a sign that you need to rethink your strategy.
Green: At the national level, do you think the Republican Party has done a good job of making it clear that it doesn’t want to be mostly a white party?
Hurd: We have to be better. We can’t be seen as being jerks, racists, misogynists, or homophobes. We oftentimes describe the Republican Party as only a handful of national figures. The Republican Party is the people who vote. We are the party that’s going to help everybody move up the economic ladder. And that work is made more difficult by some individuals within the party.
Green: Are you frustrated that the oxygen gets sucked up by people like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have become these figureheads for what the new Republican Party looks like?
Hurd: Yes, when oxygen on these national conversations gets sucked up on things, it’s hard, because we are in a new cold war with the Chinese government. Their GDP is going to be larger than the United States of America’s. And they have made it clear that they are trying to surpass the United States as a sole hegemon in the world. These are the conversations that we should be having on a national scale.
We have some serious, generationally defining challenges that we have to address, and these politics are getting in the way of having real discourse. That’s where I get frustrated.
Green: Is what you just described what voters want—or, maybe even more relevant, what big donors want? Is there an appetite for rising above and pursuing bipartisanship over owning the libs?
Hurd: For sure. In this day and age, we try to characterize everything in 280 characters. We try to condense some of these complicated ideas into a pithy tweet. When you say something that's nasty, that's going to get more engagement and more likes. So that has influenced these conversations. But what I learned in winning in one of the most competitive seats in the country is that voters want to be inspired by something better than themselves. When we appeal to that, it's a winning message.
Did that answer the question?
Green: Maybe. I think there’s something really deep here, more than just owning the libs on social media. You left your job in Congress right as one of the most stunning events in recent history happened—the January 6 insurrection. It was kind of like all of that online culture got taken out of the internet and put right on the front lawn of the Capitol. How did it feel to leave Congress and watch your former workplace get mobbed a few days later?
Hurd: I was scared—not just for my colleagues, but for all the staff who were locked down in that building. There’s going to be long-term repercussions. All of that happened because lies had been perpetuated for a long time. We need to step back and say, “Why did that happen? And how can you prevent something like that from happening in the future?”These are all hard questions, and I wish I had the answers to them.
Green: I mean, when you say “Lies had been perpetuated for a long time,” some of those lies were put forth by the president of the United States, including in front of the Capitol on the day of the attack. That’s the leader of your party. Is that hard to sit with?
Hurd: Of course it is. If the Republican Party is going to continue to be successful, it's got to start with accepting the fact that the 2020 election was not stolen. It was lost. President Trump was unable to make the Republican Party appeal to all Americans.
Green: I’m interested in the path that some of your fellow travelers in Congress have taken. One person I’m thinking of is Elise Stefanik, who’s currently up for a leadership role and has obviously had huge success, not only with her own career, but in building up other Republican women to run and win in competitive districts. She was one of your allies in Congress—one of the moderates—but she’s also been unabashedly pro-Trump and supported these claims about the 2020 election. Do you think that in order to be successful in the Republican Party in 2021, young, rising-all-star Republicans ultimately have to be loyal to the Trump brand?
Hurd: I don’t think that needs to be the case. The way you win is to have clear values and have your actions reflect that, and to talk about those issues. But guess what? There’s more than one way to win.
We’ve got to get to a place where this country is successful because we’ve had a competition of ideas. That requires two strong parties. And despite what you see on cable news and on social media, people want us to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. We’re going to be more successful in putting our country in a position to continue to uplift humanity for the next 250 years if we focus on those things that unite us.
Green: So are you planning to run for Ted Cruz’s Senate seat in 2024? Are you running for president in 2024?
Hurd: If an opportunity to serve my country presents itself, I’ll evaluate that. But right now I’m focused on the various aspects of my life. I’m involved with technology and national security and public policy.
Green: Okay then. TBD, it sounds like.