NEW YORK — It’s safe to say Will Hurd — former Republican congressman from Texas, current Republican candidate for president — does not want to be here. Nearly all the other candidates are in Milwaukee, Wisc., preparing to share a stage for the first GOP debate of the 2023 primary, and Hurd didn’t really know until the last minute whether he’d qualified; the Republican National Committee finally told him “no” late Monday night, after a polling-based selection process Hurd has since called opaque and arbitrary. So he’s not in Milwaukee and he’s not on stage, but instead watching TV with his wife Lynlie, two staffers, and a POLITICO writer and cameraman in a Times Square Marriott.
Polls aside, he might have been shut out anyway: Candidates were also required to sign a “loyalty pledge” to vote for the party’s eventual nominee as a condition of participation. This is, perhaps, not a sign of a healthy and self-confident political party, but it is a sign of one that could renominate Donald Trump in 2024. Hurd was clear from the start he’d refuse to sign. Other Trump-critical candidates, such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, took the pledge to get on the stage, even though Christie publicly called it useless and vowed not to take it seriously.
But on Trump, Hurd refuses to compromise, and he says it’s because he doesn’t want to see Joe Biden win another term. He says he’s confident, despite his presence in this Marriott and not onstage, that he can still get the nomination, that he’s racked up more than 40,000 donors after only 60 days in the race and is tied in New Hampshire with former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence. (Granted, in that Echelon Insights poll, they’re at 3 percent to Trump’s 34, but still.)
For now, sadly, hanging out with me is Hurd’s consolation prize, an opportunity to critique the performance of his opponents without fear of interruption from them or Fox’s stop-talking-now chime. Over a couple of hours, Hurd delivered an intraparty rebuttal to a group performance that he found largely wanting. Hurd is low-key, not a yeller at the TV, but there are flashes of the disappointed sports fan in his debate viewing: He makes remarks, he paces a bit, he gets more exercised as time goes on and his team can’t seem to get it together.
Stylistically, Hurd favors practical soundbites (“Don’t be a socialist, and don’t be a jerk.”) and his website is full of stats about things that majorities of Americans support (background checks for all gun buyers, the belief that the nation’s infrastructure needs repair, support for equal rights for LGBTQ people, and so forth). There’s more that unites us as Americans than divides us, he likes to say.
But debates are not for unity, and we’re here to heighten the contradictions. As we settled in, Hurd’s overarching goal was to determine “if people have the stones to be honest about Donald Trump, and not be afraid of Donald Trump. And are they going to be able to articulate a vision here that can help grow the party? Because the reason that the GOP hasn’t won [the popular vote] in 20 years at the national level is our inability to grow the party.”
8:49 p.m.: Fox is still doing pre-debate commentary, and Hurd chuckles at former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s observation that “all of these candidates are under pressure, and none of them are under oath.” “Basically, she’s implying they’re going to be lying,” he says.
So, I ask, is Trump in fact the biggest debate issue, even though he’s not on stage? “No, I think the biggest issue is jobs and the economy,” Hurd says. “And look, regardless of what’s happening with inflation at any point in time, the fact that for the last 23 years, [the] cost of goods and services has increased three times that of the average salary — that’s why people have this concern about the future and are worried about whether their kids are going to have access to good paying jobs.”
Seems reasonable. But reason and politics sometimes have nothing to say to one another. Trump is for sure about to be the biggest issue.
9:04 p.m.: Fox moderator Bret Baier explains the debate rules to eight of Hurd’s opponents. In an instruction destined to be ignored, he previews the “ding ding” sound signaling time’s up, declaring the sound “very pleasant” to appreciative laughter from co-moderator Martha MacCallum. Hurd dryly addresses Lynlie across the couch. “He literally says that every time — ‘Very pleasant.’”
9:18 p.m.: By now we’ve seen Haley admonish fellow Republicans for their contributions to America’s multi-trillion dollar debt (including votes from Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott and Pence that she says raised that figure — Hurd in Congress also voted for some but not all large spending bills on Covid relief, as well as the Trump 2017 tax overhaul, which the Congressional Budget office blamed for expanding the deficit); Pence has defended the Trump administration’s economic, energy and Supreme Court–appointment record; and rando entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has summarized his program as “drill, frack, burn coal, embrace nuclear” and also said “the only war that I will declare as U.S. president will be the war on the federal administrative state that is the source of those toxic regulations acting like a wet blanket on the economy.” Pence has retorted that Ramaswamy is a “rookie” and that “now is not the time for on-the-job training,” and DeSantis has picked up the theme of “deep state bureaucrats” who he said he wouldn’t allow to lock folks down under his presidency.
Hurd himself had a long career in government bureaucracy serving with the CIA, so I’m curious how this lands for him. He was, after all, one of these unelected government functionaries that certain elected and (and elected-hopeful) officials seem to like to hate on these days — albeit the kind that served in combat zones and, in so doing, developed just as much contempt back in the other direction. (He has said that briefing members of the House Intelligence Committee while serving in Afghanistan, and finding them to be morons, is what drove him to run for Congress in the first place.)
“It’s easy to beat up on the administrative state,” he tells me, “but the thing that always frustrates me … I just think, like, if my brother was listening, what would he take away from this about, how is my life going to be better?” (Hurd’s brother Chuck, as he likes to point out on the campaign trail, sells cable in Texas, though Chuck has previously clarified to POLITICO that he’s not just a seller but a supervisor.) “What is the specific thing that, like, you’re going to do when you get in, because …”
9:23 p.m.: He trails off to pay attention to a young man on the screen posing a climate-change question — a convincing vehicle for the point that polls show this issue as number one for young people. MacCallum asks for a show of hands to show who among the eight believes human behavior is causing climate change. DeSantis derails this exercise by arguing with the question, but Hurd says of course he would raise his hand, and that he’s “one of the few in this race that admits that.” (In the background, DeSantis is going after corporate media, pointing to his disaster response record in Florida, but declining to answer directly; Ramaswamy is saying he’s the only one onstage who’s not “bought and paid for” and thus can say that “the climate change agenda is a hoax.”)
“Climate change is real,” Hurd says mildly. “Humans are having an impact on it. … And we know that we have to…”
9:25 p.m.: Christie is yelling that he’s had enough of Ramaswamy, “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT.” Say, I ask Hurd, aren’t you on the board of OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT? He corrects me. “Was on the board.” (Later, he’ll tell me that America should be leading in and exporting clean technologies — “80 percent of windmills and solar panels are made in China. We should be the ones selling this and exporting it around the world.”)
9:26 p.m.: Haley is invoking Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” Lynlie and I exchange restrained smirks: She’s not wrong. Haley is launching into an answer about making China and India pay for their emissions, and Hurd mutes her to talk about the administrative state. To actually get the government to work for the American people, he says, “you need someone that actually can come in there and know how the government operates and improve that.” He does not name Ramaswamy, but I’m trying to imagine Ramaswamy discussing IT procurement reform as Hurd does now, and I’m coming up short. “IT procurement,” Hurd warns, “is not sexy.” Fact check: True. It does however, add up to real money: “You spend $90 billion for purchasing IT goods and services, and 85 percent of that is on legacy systems, people get outraged.” The point, he says, is that you have to address specific problems of federal spending, which is how you address the federal deficit, which is how you address the debt.
Furthermore — and here he’s getting controversial — “you’ve got to have a serious question about programs like Medicare and Social Security. And not be afraid to talk about that. But we’ve also got to be clear that seniors … should not be impacted. There should be a level of generational notice, before you have any kind of impacts, because the reality is if you do nothing, then these programs will go away.”
9:32 p.m.: “What do you think of Vivek?” I ask. Everybody seems to be piling on Ramaswamy tonight (rather than the Florida governor, who had been the expected target), so it seems only fair to give Hurd a chance too. He takes the bait. “Anybody who says that climate change is a hoax has zero chance in a general election,” Hurd responds. “Anybody who wants to kiss the butt of Vladimir Putin has no chance in a general election. Anybody who’s a 9/11 [skeptic], you know, talking about there’s some hoax or insider job, to me is just outrageous.”
So, not much, I think is the answer.
9:39 p.m.: On abortion, Haley has called for finding consensus and has pointed out there won’t be the votes in Congress to pass a federal ban; DeSantis has told a horrific story about meeting a Florida woman named Penny who survived “multiple abortion attempts” and was “left discarded in a pan;” Pence, as will multiple times during the evening, has invoked the Bible, citing the verse “before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” and has told Haley that “consensus is the opposite of leadership.”
Hurd has said previously that if a 15-week abortion ban — with exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother — were to reach his desk as president, he would sign it. Now he addresses the states with more-restrictive policies, which include his own state of Texas. “We need to be making sure that they have world-class maternal health and neonatal care” — in some communities, he says, a Black woman who is pregnant has less of a chance of surviving childbirth than do women in some developing countries.
Scott is calling himself “100-percent pro-life” when I ask Hurd whether abortion is a losing issue for Republicans in the general election. He doesn’t say yes or no, and he doesn’t invoke morality as Pence and Scott have. He points instead to the recent, convincing failure of Ohio’s Issue 1 — a ballot measure to raise the threshold for changing the state constitution, and a defensive proxy fight ahead of an abortion referendum in November — which took place in a red state. Before he can complete the thought, Haley is urging the media to ask Joe Biden and Kamala Harris whether they support abortion access up to 38, 39, 40 weeks.
“They don’t get asked that question,” Hurd agrees.
9:48 p.m.: The onstage candidates are discussing what to do about crime in America (particularly Democrat-led cities) and whether the problem is Soros-funded prosecutors (DeSantis) or loss of national identity (Ramaswamy). Ramaswamy and Pence offer an interesting split-screen of GOP visions of today’s America: Ramaswamy channels a Trumpesque “American carnage” vibe in describing a “dark moment” for the country; Pence is a bit more “morning in America” — “we just need a government as good as our people” — which Ramaswamy duly mocks.
Count Hurd on Team Pence for this one. “Our best days are ahead of us,” Hurd says. “I’ve lived in some pretty crummy places that didn’t enjoy any of the freedoms that we have. This is the best country on the planet, that’s ever been on the planet. And I think that we can do for the next 247 years what we’ve done for the last 247 years, and that’s have a quality of life that is the envy of the world. I think that it’s easy to play into people that are doomscrolling on social media and trying to say how bad things are. Look, we have a lot of problems, there’s no question about this. But these are all things that can be fixed.” Which they should be, he says, because it’s not just about being our best selves: It’s about not losing the global competition to China, which he argues will have a practical impact on how far the dollar goes, what happens to people’s retirement accounts, and whether young Americans can get good jobs.
9:52 p.m.: The TV’s been muted while we contemplate America, but now Hurd is distracted by a very America 2023 shot of the parking lot of the Fulton County Jail, where Trump is due to turn himself in tomorrow. “Why are they showing this? … Oh, they’re going to talk about Trump,” he predicts. “That should be interesting.”
9:56 p.m.: Baier ticks off the policy discussions he says Americans want to hear from the candidates: China, Ukraine, immigration, education. Then he doesn’t ask about those, but instead about “the elephant not in the room,” Trump, who has sat this one out and has also been indicted in four states, facing 91 charges. So, show of hands: “If former president Trump is convicted in a court of law, would you still support him as your party’s choice?” Six of eight raised their hands, with only Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson declining. (This despite their having had to sign a pledge, as a condition of debate participation, vowing to support their party’s nominee.)
Hurd is incredulous. “They said if he was convicted, they would still support him?”
10:03 p.m.: Christie and Ramaswamy have gotten into a bickering match that sort of starts out being about Trump but spins off into Christie, in essence, calling Ramaswamy an amateur. Scott condemns what he calls the weaponization of the DOJ “against political opponents, but also at parents who show up at school board meetings.” Hurd mutes the TV.
“I’m not going to defend the DOJ.” He calls Hunter Biden a national-security risk and says Justice gave him a “sweetheart deal” (though that particular deal has since fallen apart and Hunter Biden is now being investigated by a special counsel). “But all of Donald Trump’s problems were self-inflicted wounds. All he had to do was not do those things… And the fact that all of these people raised their hands to say if he was found guilty, they would still endorse him, like, someone who’s found guilty by a jury of their peers and you’re going to still support a criminal? Then you shouldn’t be running for president.”
10:09 p.m.: There’s been a discussion over whether Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, 2021, by actually certifying Joe Biden’s victory instead of bowing to Trump’s pressure to throw the election to him. The consensus on stage (grudging in some cases) seems to be that Pence did the right. Pence himself defends his conduct, i.e. following the law, that day, and says of Trump that “no one is above the law.” Says Hurd, still in disbelief: “But he would still support him if he was convicted?” He’s gotten up to pace the room.
10:13 p.m.: Now, finally, we’re getting into foreign policy, and specifically the issue of aid to Ukraine. DeSantis says he doesn’t support more of it and that Europe should be doing more. This, too, gets Hurd exercised, at least within the low-key parameters of his personality. Sure, Europe could do more — but it was the Netherlands and Denmark giving the Ukrainians F-16s, and the British giving them long-range cruise missiles. “This is where having someone that has zero foreign policy experience potentially being commander in chief is a scary thing,” he says, unwittingly previewing a line of attack on Ramaswamy that will become one of the debate’s most talked about moments.
“For 5 percent of the DOD budget, we’ve dismantled the Russian military. That’s beneficial for us. … The concern I have is that the Biden administration is hoping that potentially a deal where Russia keeps Crimea … That’s my fear with the criticisms that are coming, you know, in the press from unnamed sources administration,” who have lately been telling newspapers of their frustrations with Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Hurd goes further than any other GOP candidate, and certainly than Biden, in the support he wants the U.S. to offer Ukraine: He’s the only one to have called for a no-fly zone, and he wants Russia pushed back out of the territories it’s occupied or annexed since 2014, including the Crimean Peninsula. “And the day that happens, and there’s a victory, Ukraine should be a part of NATO.”
Ramaswamy is now saying that “Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America” and invoking “the same people that took us into the Iraq War, the same people that took us into the Vietnam war” starting another “no-win war,” and Hurd retorts that “nobody wants Ukraine to be a forever war, and the way to prevent it from being a forever war is to help the Ukrainians win.”
It doesn’t have quite the zing of Haley’s rejoinder that, in seeming to side with Putin, Ramaswamy is “choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” but by the time Haley and Ramaswamy have devolved into a shouting match, the TV is muted again, and we miss the most explosive exchange of the debate talking China strategy. So we didn’t see Haley tell Ramaswamy what Hurd probably wouldn’t have had he been on stage, since it’s not quite his style: “You have no foreign policy experience, and it shows.”
10:17 p.m.: Hurd does not, like some others in his party, see Ukraine as a distraction from competing with China. He says the Chinese have learned from watching Russian actions in Ukraine that the lesson, vis-a-vis its designs on Taiwan, is to “go in heavy,” and he worries that within the next few years, if China sees Taiwan moving to break further away from its orbit, it may try to take the opportunity to stop it. “You have to be prepared to do it all,” he says of U.S. foreign policy priorities. This includes better alliances. “Why is China able to increase its presence in Cuba? Because we have failed to get the rest of the Western Hemisphere to deal with Cuba appropriately.”
10:21 p.m.: That alliance issue also extends to Mexico. When DeSantis calls for sending troops to the southern border — a chunk of which was in Hurd’s Texas congressional district — Hurd takes the opportunity to advocate for treating Mexican drug cartels like terrorist organizations, which could indeed involve the authorized use of force against drug cartels and human smugglers in cooperation with the Mexican government.
By the time things are winding down and Hurd is preparing for another news hit, he’s unwilling to crown a winner on the debate stage (though that does leave open the possibility of someone offstage, such as, oh, I don’t know, Will Hurd). “I would say the ambassador” — Haley — “was having a strong performance until she raised her hand saying she would support Donald Trump even if he was convicted.” The conviction question was an easy one, he says, and nearly everyone failed to answer it the easy way. Even Christie, who was perhaps the strongest and certainly the loudest in going after Donald Trump, was offering nothing new in Hurd’s view.
But you cannot accuse Christie of not sounding, well, vehement. I venture that Hurd seems to share similar sentiments but maybe isn’t so much of a yeller? “Here’s the bottom line, right? I’ve been shot at. I’ve been chased. People have tried to blow me up. I’ve actually dealt with real threats. I’m the only person in this race that is actually willing to put his life on the line for what I believed in, and that’s to protect the country. So I don’t have to act tough. Because my actions and deeds have already proven that. So that’s why my demeanor is a little bit different.”
Now he has another engagement, with Newsmax, and he is walking away unimpressed with the field he’d just watched. “Joe Biden,” he remarks, “is laughing.”