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In one Texas congressional race, there’s a third candidate — and his name is Trump

Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas questions FBI Director James Comey at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in July.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

A decade ago, a Democrat defeated the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District.

Four years later, Republicans took the district back. Then it flipped to the Democrats again. And then back to the Republicans.

This fall, Democrats are trying to reclaim one of the few competitive congressional seats in the nation — and they’re hoping the specter of Donald Trump will help them do it.

Not that Pete Gallego, a lawyer and former congressman, isn’t willing to discuss other issues. The Democrat says that when he campaigns before women’s groups, Latinos and veterans, he tries to address such things as preserving Big Bend National Park, bolstering education and improving veterans’ benefits.

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The No. 1 local issue is Donald Trump.

Pete Gallego, Democratic candidate for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District

“I never get to that, because people always want to talk about Trump,” Gallego said during a recent campaign stop at a postal workers’ union here. “The No. 1 local issue is Donald Trump.”

The Republican presidential hopeful complicates campaigning for GOP candidates like Rep. Will Hurd, who has refused to endorse or outright condemn Trump. Hurd, who currently represents Texas’ 23rd District, is focusing on local concerns, campaigning at rural Dairy Queens and touting his constituent services — along with the four border- and cybersecurity-related bills he wrote that have become law.

“Pete Gallego only wants to talk about Donald Trump because he wants to hide the fact that he was a complete failure when he was in Congress,” Hurd said in a statement last week. “He accomplished nothing, while my record stands as someone who has worked hard since Day 1, and I’m just getting started.”

Trump is casting a shadow over local races more than any presidential candidate in recent memory, especially in heavily Latino districts like this one, where Trump piñatas are top sellers.

“That’s the story all across the country. Democrats want to tie their down-ballot opponents to Trump, and Republicans don’t want to talk about Trump at all,” said Kyle Kondik with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Hurd is distancing himself. It’s a tricky dance for Republicans.”

Pete Gallego, right, speaks with a local Democratic official in San Antonio.
Pete Gallego, right, speaks with a local Democratic official in San Antonio.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times )

The 23rd is an unusually large district that stretches 800 miles along the Mexico border, from San Antonio to El Paso. It’s 70% Latino and full of veterans and active-duty personnel stationed at several military installations. In the gated communities that line San Antonio’s conservative northwestern suburbs, yard signs proclaim “Hillary for Prison.”

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The district’s diversity probably will play out in the voting booths.

“There’s going to be a lot of split households,” Gallego said. “Women who answer the door will tell you, ‘My husband is voting for Trump, but there’s no way I’m voting for that man.’”

In 2014, Hurd beat Gallego by fewer than 2,500 votes. But in presidential election years, turnout in the 23rd favors Democrats.

And although polling shows Hillary Clinton is the second-most unpopular major-party nominee since 1964 after Trump, the GOP nominee is more of a drag on Hurd than Clinton is on Gallego, said Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

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Hurd “has to walk a very delicate line,” Jones said. “If he denounces Trump, then he alienates many … supporters of Trump, as well as Republicans who believe everyone should be getting on the bandwagon. If he alienates those Anglos, they might leave his spot blank on the ballot. But if he comes out and supports Trump, then he gives Gallego a host of ammunition against him.”

The key to the race could be the conservative San Antonio suburbs, home to nearly two-thirds of the district’s population.

Will they warm to Trump’s aggressive foreign policies — such as building a border wall — or be turned off by controversies such as his criticism of the parents of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan?

“San Antonio is eaten up with military. People care, and they care deeply. Disrespect to the Khan family means something,” said Harold Cook, an Austin-based Democratic analyst. “Hurd’s in a tough position here because he’s going to be pressured by the Democrats to either saddle up with Trump or not. And either way, he’s screwed.”

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Northern San Antonio Democratic precinct chairs who recently hosted Gallego at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 142 union said they were seeing Republicans defect because of Trump.

“We’ve experienced people coming into Bexar County Democrats for [campaign] signs that have never voted Democrat in their life,” Bob Comeaux said. They’re even having buttons made: “Republicans for Hillary.”

Hurd says he is trusting that voters will see through Gallego’s efforts to distract them by focusing on Trump. “The people of Texas’ 23rd District are smart enough to know that when it comes to doing things, actions count more than empty words,” he said.

But until Trump “can show that he has a clear national security plan and until he shows he can respect minorities and women, I’m going to withhold my endorsement,” said the congressman, who is African American.

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Steve Munisteri, former chairman of the state Republican Party, praised Hurd as “outgoing, articulate, intelligent,” and said he was smart to disagree publicly with Trump — taking issue with the nominee’s call for a border wall, for instance — while still supporting Trump enough to satisfy his Republican base.

“His personality is one of the reasons I put that district as a tossup,” Munisteri said.

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The district is full of swing voters and ticket-splitters, he said, noting that when Gallego was elected in 2012, Mitt Romney also got more votes than President Obama.

Janice Manry, 70, a registered independent who manages a storage facility in the city’s northwest suburbs, thinks Trump could drive turnout in Hurd’s favor. She plans to vote for both Republicans. And she sees plenty of like-minded customers, including Latinos and veterans who are “for him building that wall, they’re for him sending guys back who are coming across here like waves of water.”

But across the parking lot, retired firefighter Roland Trevino said he had recently attended a wedding where half the guests were Mexican, and merely mentioning Trump’s name ignited a firestorm.

“I just cannot vote for him,” said Trevino, 61, adding that he expects some Latinos upset with Trump will vote for Gallego based on his surname alone. For now, Trevino plans to vote for Hurd. But he said that could change as he learns more.

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“Hurd has done a lot right in his time in Congress,” said Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I don’t think he’s made any real mistakes [in the campign] and he’s raised a lot of money.”

Even so, Kondik said, “I’d rather be Gallego than Hurd. An unpopular candidate that Hispanics don’t like might be more important than anything the candidates say.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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