Former Texas state representative Will Hurd grew up the son of a white mother, and a black father who always said he’s “been a Republican since Lincoln freed us.” (Photo by Scott Olson via Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: Can a Moderate Republican Win Over America?

Former congressman Will Hurd calls Trump a ‘loser’ who’ll give Biden four more years. He tells me why he’s the best candidate to restore sanity to the GOP.

If you’ve been listening to Honestly for the past few months, maybe even since the 2022 midterms, you probably think I sound like something of a broken record when it comes to my advice for politicians today. Again and again, I’ve said the following: elections right now are Republicans’ to lose. Biden’s approval numbers are low—41.2 percent—which is lower than every president at this stage of their term in the last 75 years, with the exception of Jimmy Carter. 

It seems to me that all Republicans need to do is stand still and be normal, and they’d win. Instead, the GOP often seems more focused on Bud Light and Disney than on education, crime and the economy.

So when former Texas congressman Will Hurd announced he was running for president last month, I thought, at long last, a normal Republican candidate. And not just that—one with an impressive pedigree and reputation. The kind of candidate that will set your heart aflutter if you crave a return to sanity and sobriety in our politics.

So. . . why is Hurd polling in last place? Has my advice over the last few months been misguided? Is the Republican Party just too radically transformed at this point for someone like Will Hurd?

Perhaps this is the first time you’re hearing of Hurd, so here’s a bit of an introduction:

Hurd spent nearly a decade as an undercover operative for the CIA in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India during the height of the war on terror. In 2010, he left the agency to start his political career and in 2014, he was elected to Congress, becoming the only black Republican on the House floor. For three consecutive terms, Hurd represented one of Texas’s most sprawling districts—a district that is two-thirds Latino and covers much of the border with Mexico, from San Antonio to El Paso. 

In a profile of Hurd in The Atlantic last year, appropriately titled “Revenge of the Normal Republicans,” reporter Tim Alberta wrote this: Will Hurd knows that “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.” 

So which is it: Are Americans ready to buy what Hurd is selling? Or has that ship simply sailed? I asked Hurd all these questions and more in the latest episode of Honestly, which you can click to listen to here or read an edited excerpt below. See you in the comments. —BW

Who is Will Hurd?

BW: I want to start with what seems like the origins of your political journey, and that takes us back to 2008 in Afghanistan. Tell us what you were doing there and what happened there that so stuck with you and eventually propelled you into a career in politics? 

WH: I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was the head of the undercover operations at our station in Kabul, Afghanistan. And at 3 a.m. that morning, a bomb went off in front of our embassy, killed some of our local guards, took out a section of our protective wall, and my unit was responsible for trying to figure out what happened. And we conducted a couple dozen operations in a very short period of time. That night, we had a “HPSCI CODEL”—the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Congressional Delegation. These are the people that oversee our intelligence services. I go into this briefing and I overhear one of these members of Congress say, “Is the CIA going to cut this briefing short so we can get to the bazaar to buy rugs?” I’m annoyed, but we get in the briefing and the senior-most person in this group, who had been on the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence for over six years, asks a question: “Why was Iran not supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan the way Iran was supporting other groups in Iraq?” Now, your sophisticated audience and listeners know that’s a pretty crummy question, but I start explaining the Sunni–Shia divide. And then he raises his hand and he says, “Will, what’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shia?” And I’m thinking, this guy’s getting ready to make a really inappropriate joke, and who am I to deny him this opportunity? And I said, “I don’t know, Congressman, what’s the difference?” And I’m getting ready to go, “bah dum dum dum.” His face goes bright red. Didn’t know that difference in Islam. You know, it’s okay for my big brother to not know that difference because he sells cable in our hometown of San Antonio. But for an individual who is making decisions on sending our brothers and sisters and spouses to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—unacceptable. And I literally, at that moment, right then and there, I decided to move back to my hometown and run for Congress. So that’s how I got involved in politics. It started with me getting pissed off. 

BW: So in 2014, you run for Congress in Texas, and you defeat the incumbent. How did you, a black Republican, win in a two-thirds Latino district in Texas? 

WH: Real simple: I showed up. The way you win campaigns is by ID’ing your voters. That’s the formula. You have to know who your voters are. My opponent was a former member of Congress. He was a very rich guy, self-funder. He was supported by the country club Republicans and by Ted Cruz, but we still won because I showed up to places that people didn’t expect me to be and talked about shit they cared about. That experience taught me that there is way more that unites us than divides us as a country. We are better together. I had to get votes from the independents. I had to get votes from the Democrats. This was a congressional seat that went back and forth between Republican and Democrat for a decade. I was the first to hold it for multiple cycles. 

On being a black Republican Congressman:

BW: You are one of only 31 Republican black congressmen in American history. During your time in office, you were the only black Republican on the House floor. Why aren’t there more black Republican leaders?

WH: It’s coming. Right now in the House, I think there’s five or six. There are so many, I don’t even know all of them! If it wasn’t for a guy like J. C. Watts, you wouldn’t have Tim Scott. If you didn’t have Tim Scott, you wouldn’t have Mia Love from Utah. We’ve been growing, and I give Kevin McCarthy credit for working with candidates to ensure that they have the resources, organization, and infrastructure in order to be competitive. And so I think there is a real opportunity in the black community, because the Democratic Party has ignored the black community for a long time and taken them for granted. But guess what? Black folks care about the same things everyone else does: putting food on the table, a roof over their head, and taking care of their kids and making sure that they can grow their business, that they have access to good-paying jobs, that they’re getting educated. The school choice issue is a winning issue for Republicans. Texas has done a longitudinal study, 20-year study, that shows that the achievement gap was eliminated for black and brown kids in charter schools with their white counterparts. So let’s focus on those kinds of things. And that makes us almost unstoppable in November if we’re growing the brand in the largest growing groups of voters. 

BW: You’ve written about your experience growing up with a black father and a white mother in San Antonio, and about some of the hate and bigotry you experienced as a result of that. And I guess I just wanted to ask how you think about the fact that many people associate the Republican Party with some of its most racist and bigoted fringes, with people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Steve King. And does it ever make you uncomfortable to be sort of swept up with that brand?

WH: I’m the baby of three. My parents met in L.A., got married in 1970, and moved to San Antonio in 1971. The house my father still lives in, and my mother lived in up until she passed away this year, is the house me and my siblings grew up in. It was the only house that would sell to an interracial couple. It didn’t have the best schools—it was basically in the boonies back then, but guess what? That didn’t impact me. I had a house filled with love. I had an amazing older brother and older sister, I had two parents that cared about me, and 35 years later, their youngest son ended up representing that area as a congressman. That’s what’s amazing about America and how far we have come. The supermajority of the Republican Party are not racist misogynists, all that stuff. Folks like to put the Republicans in that label because there are high-profile people that do dumb things. There’s no question about that. So that requires people like me to make sure when somebody does something that is against the values and the ethos of the party, we need to speak up and not be afraid. And so that’s how I’ve always tried to be. 

On surviving as a normal Republican:

BW: Who is the Will Hurd voter? What does he or she look like?

WH: A Will Hurd voter is someone who is disaffected with both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. They want to see something different and they’ve almost given up because of how sick and tired they are of everyone within their party. It’s the folks that are not going to vote for Donald Trump, that are not going to vote for a clone of Donald Trump. There’s also another group of people who voted for Donald Trump twice, who like him, but don’t like the baggage with him. They recognize that if he’s the GOP nominee, we’re willingly giving four more years to Joe Biden. Within that group of people, these folks understand how much America’s role in the world still matters. These people believe in personal responsibility and they believe in service. I’m the only candidate on both sides of the aisle who has actually served in a conflict zone—who’s been shot at or blown up. People want someone to get behind that is not Trump, and that person should be me.

BW: When you were in Congress, you were an unusually bipartisan lawmaker. You hired multiple Democrats for key positions in your office. You’ve supported legislation to end the 2019 government shutdown and to protect gay Americans from discrimination. You livestreamed a road trip and town hall with Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke. You’ve attended a protest after the killing of George Floyd in Houston. So given all of that, why are you a Republican? 

WH: Because I believe that America deserves a sane Republican Party. I’m a Republican because I believe in a strong foreign policy. I believe that everybody should have equal opportunity. I believe that freedom leads to growth and growth leads to progress. For me, the Republican Party is defined by people who are willing to vote for a Republican. When you take that broad view, you get a different perspective, and those are the kinds of folks that I’m activating. I was in Iowa a couple of weeks ago and I got booed for saying that “Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again. Donald Trump is not running for president to represent the people that voted for him in 2016 and 2020. Donald Trump is running for president to stay out of prison.” I knew that was going to elicit boos, but there was applause in the crowd as well. We have to have people that are willing to be honest and speak the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable or potentially unpopular. 

BW: But why is saving the Republican Party more important than winning? Why not run as a Democrat? 

WH: I would have different issues and criticisms if I was part of the Democratic Party. I would still get attacked by the extreme edge. So for me, this is the party I grew up in. My 90-year-old black father always says he’s been a Republican since Lincoln freed us. So, for me, this is the vehicle by which I can continue to serve my country. 

BW: You say you’re running on a platform of pragmatic idealism, which sounds like an oxymoron to me. What does that mean?

WH: The idealism focuses on achieving the greatest outcome for the most amount of people. The pragmatism is figuring out how we achieve that. So, take me for example: I know I’m a dark horse. I would be crazy if I came in here and said, “Oh, this is going to be easy. It’s going to be a slam dunk.” However, the idealist piece is knowing that I have a real chance because people are looking for a change. Seven out of ten Democrats don’t want Joe Biden on the ballot. Six out of ten Republicans don’t want Donald Trump. Nobody wants this 2016 rematch from hell to actually happen. So that requires us to do something about it. 

On rebooting this country like an old computer:

BW: One of the ways that I break down the Republican primary right now is into two buckets: those candidates who believe that we need reform and the candidates who believe we need revolt. You, though, have a different R-word, one that is encapsulated in the title of your book, which is reboot. What does an “American Reboot” look like, and why would it be more successful than a reform or a revolt?

WH: It’s about getting back to those timeless principles that have got us to where we are today. When your computer’s not doing something right, what do you do? You reboot it. You don’t put a new operating system on it. When you look at why people are frustrated with our institutions, it’s because our institutions are not providing a service that they’re supposed to be providing. Let’s take something as basic in the government. Why does it take months to get your passport renewed? That’s something that should take minutes. Why does it take a veteran months to get access to an appointment at the VA? How are we going to tackle something like artificial intelligence, which is going to upend every single industry—not in ten years, but in two or three years? So to me, the reboot is getting back to equal opportunity. It’s getting back to protecting people’s individual rights to be themselves. It’s getting back to local control. Those principles are going to help us achieve our limitless potential. 

BW: Part of the reboot that you’ve talked about is making the GOP, as you’ve put it, “look like America.” What do you mean by that? 

WH: Donald Trump is a loser. The last time he won anything was in 2016. He lost the House in 2018. He lost the White House and the Senate in 2020. He prevented a red wave from materializing in 2022. Why was that? Because he failed to grow the Republican Party into the three largest growing groups of voters: women with a college degree in the suburbs, black and brown communities, and people below the age of 35. And it’s real simple, right? Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be a homophobe. Don’t be a racist. Don’t be all these things we learned when we were kids. If we do that, we have a real opportunity. 

BW: At a town hall recently, you were asked to fill in the blank in the following sentence: “The state of our democracy is blank,” and you said one word: fragile. Explain to me what’s behind that answer. When you say American democracy is fragile, what are you thinking most of in your mind? 

WH: American democracy has always been fragile, and it will always be fragile. That’s why 247 years ago, people called it an experiment. Nobody thought it was going to work. There are only 14 countries that have been in a democracy for more than 100 years. For democracy to continue to be robust, we in this generation do not have to do what our forebears did. We are not having a fight on the fields of Lexington, or on the plains of Gettysburg, or marching in Selma or Birmingham. All we have to do is show up to vote—and not just in the general elections, but in the primaries as well. If we start doing that, then that fragility will become a little bit more robust. 

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