One of the things that happens when parties lose elections is that they construct stories about why they lost, and react accordingly. In 2006, Republicans wound up with three stories. They blamed President George W. Bush. They blamed themselves for being insufficiently conservative. And they blamed the Mark Foley scandal. Rightly or wrongly, they acted on those beliefs. The Tea Party revolt after 2008 was in some ways the result of the “not conservative enough” self-critique.
If Republicans suffer major losses in 2018, it’s easy to guess who they will blame first: President Donald Trump. They are also likely to decide they were insufficiently conservative. It’s not entirely clear what that will mean in practice; my guess is that we’ll see lots of conservatives talking about the omnibus and big-spending RINOs.
Still, there’s probably room for a third story. And that story might depend on which incumbents survive. What if Representative Will Hurd of Texas is one of them?
He is a Republican member of the House from the most closely contested district in Texas. In 2006, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez defeated the incumbent Republican. He held it for two terms, then was defeated by Republican Quico Canseco. He was defeated by Democrat Pete Gallego in 2012, who was defeated by Hurd in 2014. Hurd won by some 2,400 votes that year, and held off Gallego in 2016 by about 3,000 votes. In what appears to be a very good year for Democrats, Hurd will have a very difficult time retaining the seat.
The CIA veteran has focused on national security matters during his two terms, showing far more serious effort than most members of his party, according to most accounts. He’s secured funding for his district based on that expertise, a tried-and-true strategy for members of Congress in both parties that has lost favor with too many Republicans.
When conservative orthodoxy conflicts with the interests of his district, Hurd dissents.
Border security stands as an especially striking example. His district is enormous, stretching from San Antonio all the way to the edges of El Paso. It adjoins Mexico over hundreds of miles, much of which still lacks the kind of wall that Trump has made into a Republican rallying cry. Hurd opposes it as “the most expensive and least effective way to do border security.” Hurd is also working to protect “Dreamers,” the hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants in danger of deportation, with a bipartisan bill that seeks to solve both issues at once.
Hurd also showed a knack for symbolic bipartisanship last year with a gimmicky drive from Texas to Washington with El Paso Democrat (and Senator Ted Cruz challenger) Beto O’Rourke. He stood up to Trump over the Russia investigation last week, saying Special Counsel Robert Mueller “should be allowed to turn over every rock, pursue every lead.”
Hurd has been doing the things that we would expect a conservative Republican in a tough district to do before Newt Gingrich took charge of the House of Representatives in 1995. But almost none of these things are normal for someone in this situation in 2018. Instead, Republican members of the House, even those in swing districts, typically care more about re-nomination than re-election. They mostly ignore policy and the idea of bipartisanship. They pay close attention, however, to the latest nonsense on Fox News and Republican-aligned radio.
But is Hurd’s approach better than the reigning one in the Republican Party? That could become clearer after midterm results, when different sorts of candidates will be tested.
Dave Brat is the upstart candidate who upset House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a fellow Republican, in 2014. His campaign strategy centers on rallying hard-core Republicans rather than reaching out to all of his constituents. He’s perhaps the most notable example of a path that emphasizes the primary over the general election and doing that by being as conservative as possible.
Then there’s California Republican Devin Nunes. He uses his committee perch not for substantive conservative policy formation, but for partisan attacks sure to garner coverage on Fox News and conservative talk radio.
If Hurd wins and if incumbents like Brat and Nunes lose, it really might become the third big story Republicans tell about the 2018 elections. It also might affect the second story about insufficient conservativism. Anything that increases the amount of Republicans seeing policy substance would be a positive step for the party, and for U.S. politics.
At the moment, the Cook Political Report places Hurd’s seat in the “lean Republican” column. That isn’t great. But it’s better than 29 Republican seats currently listed as toss-ups or worse, including one in Texas. Hurd stands with 22 other Republicans in the column, including Brat. (Nunes’s seat is still considered safe). Indeed, because of the reputation of these seats, it’s possible that Hurd could beat expectations even with a narrow loss, while Nunes and Brat could fall short of expectations with narrow wins.
And if Hurd survives while other incumbents are defeated? Then it really could emerge as a major story among Republicans of what happened in 2018. And that, in turn, could push more Republicans to follow the Hurd model and perhaps fewer to follow the one chosen by Brat or Nunes.
House Republicans shouldn’t become less conservative. But they should become less obsessed with proving their conservative credentials, more willing to compromise in order to achieve their policy goals, and more interested in policy in general. Hurd is not a perfect politician, just a better model than many others in the House Republican conference.
If he outperforms the Brats and Nuneses of the House this fall, the more it gets hyped, the better. And Republicans who want a healthy conservative party should be ready to do just that.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.