Politics

What Texans Are Telling Their Congressman

Are voters fixated on Trump? Health care? North Korea? Nope. Think again.

Representative Will Hurd is no stranger in his district.

Photographer: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If for some unfathomable reason you are planning to follow a congressman through a baking-hot Texas summer, I recommend you choose Will Hurd. He’s personable, mild-mannered, and clearly in command of the issues. Also, he holds many of his town halls in Dairy Queens, so you can cool off with a Blizzard while you wait for the event to start.

Those were not my reasons for visiting Hurd’s district. I went to see Hurd because he’s in the only competitive district in Texas. Running along the southwestern edge of the state, the Texas 23rd has 820 miles of border and a majority-Hispanic population. Hillary Clinton carried it by 3.4 percentage points. Hurd, a Republican, carried it by 1.3 points.

In short, it is that increasing rarity in U.S. politics: a truly competitive political district. Hurd is a moderate Republican, or at least, the closest thing we’ve got in these days of polarization. His opponents complain that he votes with his party too often, but party unity on congressional votes has been steadily rising for decades, and given the complete dysfunction of Congress in recent years, Hurd, now in his second term, hasn’t had many opportunities to boldly buck his party on a major policy issue. He’s certainly not one of President Donald Trump’s yes-men.

Hurd was one of the 20 Republicans who voted against the American Health Care Act. At every stop on his town hall tour -- charmingly named “DC to DQ” -- he had harsh words for the idea of a wall along the Mexican border. And after Trump came out to defend some participants in a white supremacist demonstration, Hurd told CNN: “If you are showing up to a Klan rally you are probably a racist or a bigot. I think the outrage across the political spectrum about this is maybe the thing that ultimately unites us.”

As a former CIA officer, Hurd says that his old job taught him moderation, and respect for the views of all sides. “Being an intelligence officer,” he said, “you collect information from all sides, and when there’s overlap, that’s usually where the truth is.”

Hurd’s tour in the Texas 23rd is a window into what members of Congress are encountering during this August recess -- or “district work period,” as lawmakers prefer to call it. Many hold town halls to reconnect with their home states. It’s a very different perspective on national politics than we get back in Washington.

So, tagging along behind Will Hurd, I spent a few days visiting public libraries, coffee shops, Dairy Queens (where I enjoyed my first Blizzard with chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), and, memorably, a sort of dance hall named John T. Floore Country Store. I wanted to hear what a member of Congress was hearing from constituents.

Veterans’ issues -- something that almost never make the national conversation unless the Veteran’s Administration has a juicy scandal for us to gape at -- loomed much larger in the questioning than health-care reform, which has obsessed the national media for the past nine months. That shouldn’t really be surprising. The number of veterans in the country is roughly equal to the widely touted figure of 20 million people who gained insurance because of Obamacare.

Obamacare recipients are at best a weak interest group. Many people, especially Medicaid recipients, may not even be aware that Obamacare is the source of their insurance coverage. Moreover, Obamacare disproportionately benefited noncitizens, who cannot vote. Veterans, on the other hand, are well-organized, have their connection with the VA to bind them together as an interest group, and are overwhelmingly eligible to vote.

Veterans’ issues were the most notable way that the local conversation differed from the national one, but far from the only one. I heard more about school policy than climate change, and a great deal about very local issues indeed -- problems with asbestos in the water table, a local community college that someone said was doing a poor job of preparing kids for work. In the El Paso leg of the trip, which I didn’t cover, Hurd says that the conversation was dominated by flooding, as heavy rains had recently filled normally dry arroyos, damaging property and displacing families.

When I asked Hurd whether the local conversation seemed different from the national one, he enthusiastically agreed. “That’s absolutely right,” he said. What the voters care about can be very different. And ultimately, those voters are Hurd’s boss.

Location Trumps Party

Even on issues that are unmistakably Big National Concerns -- notably securing the border -- the conversation in Texas was very different from what you hear at the national level. Small towns are Trump country, but here this close to the border, even when the group was predominantly Anglo, I didn’t hear a lot of support for Trump’s wall.

That’s because for most of the country, the wall is a symbolic commitment to cracking down on people who illegally cross the border. In Hurd’s district, the wall is not symbolic. It is a real and a looming threat. Building it would mean using eminent domain to seize land from local farmers, creating a barrier to wildlife and stock that would wreak havoc with their operations.

Border control already presents problems for these people. I listened to one man relate the tale of a neighbor whose house fire raged out of control because border security had cut them off from the fire department. They sure don’t want more of it. So rural whites who were probably Republicans, and who in other parts of the country might have been avid fans of the wall idea, nodded and smiled when Hurd said -- as he did at every stop -- that “a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to handle border security.”

This kind of local knowledge, by the way, illustrates the benefit of having a geographically based election system with single-member districts, rather than nationalized elections run by proportional representation. Coast dwellers who have herded into very liberal cities frequently disparage this system, which hands outsize power to more rural, more conservative voters. But in a country that is 3,000 miles wide, national policies will have widely varying impacts depending on local conditions. If we used proportional representation, much of that local information would be lost to the political system. As it is, the Texas 23rd has a Republican in Congress making a vocal case against the president’s signature promise.

Washington’s Trump Fixation

Trump is almost all Washington thinks about these days. But in the Texas 23rd, his name came up a lot less than I expected, in my interviews and in the questions aimed at Hurd. Voters seemed to have other things on their mind.

Some of those things -- like Trump’s proposed border wall, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s support for vouchers -- were Trump administration policy. But voters wanted to talk about the policy, not the people behind them.

When I asked Hurd what had changed since Trump’s election, he said the biggest change was not what people were talking about, but simply that more people were coming to the events. Those people were about roughly split between Democrats and Republicans, he observed. And from what I observed, very few of them were interested in debating whether Trump was an existential threat to the republic.

Customer Satisfaction

Hurd does “DC to DQ” every year -- with 29 stops in 2017, from El Paso to San Antonio. He says that’s just who he is: “When I ran the first time, people always said they didn’t see their representatives. ‘Representative’: that’s my title, and I take that seriously.” Later in our conversation, he added: “I do actually like it. I love road trips, I love the district, I like being with people.”

But it also seems likely that this level of contact gives him an edge in tight races. Even if that’s not why he’s doing it, that may be why his district re-elected him, while pulling the lever for Clinton at the top of the ballot. 

In the increasingly common safe districts, the real political action is in the primary, which tends to be dominated by small groups of activist voters who can be assuaged with private contact. In a competitive district, you have to win over the kinds of folks who don’t define themselves by one political priority. The people at the town halls I attended were still more politically engaged than your average U.S. citizen. But their issues were more eclectic, their tone more moderate, and their hunger for bipartisanship palpable.

Competitive Districts Tone Down the Divisive Rhetoric

There’s a difference between knowing in your head that the nation’s one-party districts are making our politics more bitter, and watching people talk politics in a place where the electorate is roughly evenly divided.

Oh, there were a few shouting matches between voters of differing political persuasions. But there was also a lot of talk about bipartisanship -- from Hurd, and to him. The standard speech he gave at the beginning of every event leaned heavily on things that had recently passed Congress with bipartisan support, and always noted that he had learned two things on a road trip from El Paso to Washington with a Democratic counterpart: “Far more unites us as Americans than divides us. And we can disagree without being disagreeable.” These were big applause lines everywhere he delivered them.

It seems a pity we can’t have more politics like that. But to the extent that the split nature of the district helps make its politics more reasonable, it also makes it less likely to show up elsewhere.

Before you start shouting “gerrymandering” and waving your pet redistricting plan, I should point out that gerrymandering is, at best, a small part of the problem. The bitter partisanship of the last few years is new; gerrymandering is not. (It’s named for Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor and later vice president who produced the first gerrymander to be so named. Those district lines were drawn in 1812.)

The big problem is what has come to be called “The Big Sort”: like-minded voters clustering together. And particularly progressive voters, who herd into giant cities that deliver huge majorities for Democrats, while ceding the rest of the country to Republicans.

Earlier I noted that local conditions complicate national policy, so that even people who ought to ideologically favor some idea think very differently when they know how it will be carried out on their local ground. You can think of American political parties -- heck, the American electorate -- as being steadily cut off from that vital local knowledge. The Democratic Party is cut off from learning about what its ideas will mean to people in small towns and far-flung exurbs; the Republicans have no base that can teach them about city centers. So both parties craft their policies in a partial vacuum.

In recent decades, the only institution we’ve had that has spanned this divide has been the presidency. To win the White House, a candidate needed to get lots of different kinds of voters interested, not just one type. But after the last election, even this no longer seems to be true. Clinton explicitly based her strategy on running up tallies with various Democratic interest groups, apparently having decided that the Emerging Democratic Majority had stopped emerging, and was now a sure thing. (She won three million more votes than her opponent, but in an electoral college crafted for geographic diversity, that wasn’t enough to hand her victory.) Trump’s strategy was just as explicit. Thanks to the Big Sort, he eked out a victory, but started out with the visceral and implacable hatred of half his countrymen. 

It’s hard at the moment to see a path beyond the morass. We need more politicians like Will Hurd, but can those politicians thrive beyond districts like the Texas 23rd? It’s hard to say. It would be a good start if voters beyond those rare competitive districts could stop shouting, and maybe sit down together, have a Blizzard, and try to hash things out like neighbors instead of enemies.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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