From Texas to Congress: Will 'rare' friendship cost politicians their careers?

Democrat Beto O'Rourke and Republican Will Hurd of Texas bonded over an unexpected hit road trip earlier this year. But as elections draw near, this bipartisan friendship may not be charming voters. 

Mary Clare Jalonick/AP
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas (l.), and Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, pose for a photo at the Capitol in March on Capitol Hill in Washington. Nearly 36 hours after it started, the bipartisan road trip has ended and the two Texas congressmen are back at work in Washington.

Earlier this year, a snowy winter deluge turned gridlock in Washington from figurative to literal. In that pause for breath, bipartisanship went viral in the form of two young Texas congressmen taking a road trip together.

Will Hurd, a Republican and former undercover CIA operative from Helotes, and Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat and former software company founder from El Paso, spent two days in a car with each other – and with Williberto, the trip’s piñata mascot – talking music, food, their first cars, and politics. Hundreds of thousands of people followed on social media. A few other members of Congress even suggested making their own #bipartisanroadtrip in the future

“One reason it captured so much attention is because it’s so rare,” says Harold Cook, a Texas Democratic strategist. “I think a lot of people were wondering [at the time], ‘Why is this so rare? There’s something wrong if it’s so rare.’”

The two emerged from the trip friends, becoming two prominent examples of bipartisanship for a country that seems increasingly eager for it.

There is one looming problem, however: Both will be fighting for their political careers next year. And there’s every chance both could lose. Representative O’Rourke has launched a longshot bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, while Representative Hurd will be fighting to retain one of the most hotly-contested seats in Congress.

Their futures raise larger questions. Can a moderate Republican rise through the ranks of an increasingly partisan GOP? And is cooperation, and genuine friendship, with members of the opposing party something that voters will reward? Or punish?

A ‘productive’ friendship

Having served together for three years, Hurd and O’Rourke knew each other well enough as colleagues to schedule three joint meetings with veterans in San Antonio the day the winter storm hit Washington. They didn’t know each other well enough, however, to avoid an uncomfortable first couple hours on the road (after O’Rourke suggested they rent a car and drive back to D.C.).

“The first 90 minutes were tough, I’ll be honest,” Hurd told ABC News in July. “But what was great about this was while Beto and I had worked on things before…having a long dialogue we learned there were many other areas we could probably cooperate on.”

The two have remained friends. Hurd had a hand-drawn map of their route framed for O’Rourke. O’Rourke compiled a Spotify playlist of the music they listened to. Hurd dropped by O’Rourke’s office on his birthday. They check in with each other on the House floor every now and then.

“It’s been a productive relationship, but it’s also a friendship,” says O’Rourke of his work with Hurd, in an interview. “I think I’ve become more effective for our friendship.”

It is also a rare friendship, not only because they are members of opposing parties, but because they are both public about it.

“I think there are many more bipartisan friendships [today], but people are afraid to be public about them because it sets them up for primary challenges,” says Sean Theriault, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Bipartisan friendships were commonplace around 40 years ago, particularly among same-state representatives. Members of Congress would tear into each other on the floor then golf together in the afternoon. Even more common, says Professor Theriault, was for members of opposing parties to publicly stay out of each other’s re-election races.

But when asked for another example like O’Rourke and Hurd today, he is quiet.

“Maybe my stunned silence means it’s unique,” he says, finally.

Now, portions of the electorate and some members of Congress are hoping that may be about to change.

“The voters are really pushing,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) of Texas, considered one of the most bipartisan members of his state delegation. “They don’t want extremes up here, they’re getting tired of the extremes, and I think that’s why folks like Beto and Will do well.”

But not all voters are eager to see common ground and compromise.

Take a town hall event O’Rourke held in San Antonio in October. James Kane, Democratic chairman of a county precinct, stood up and asked the congressman to publicly distance himself from Hurd.

When O’Rourke refused – saying he would lose Hurd’s trust, and thus their ability to work together – Mr. Kane told him he didn’t have his precinct’s support.

“I gotcha,” O’Rourke replied. “That may be the price of bipartisanship.”

“No. It’s not bipartisanship,” Kane interrupted. “You’re backstabbing us.”

Congress has been polarized and gridlocked for years, and while voters have complained, they have generally tolerated it. But they may now have reached a breaking point, some experts believe.

“Donald Trump is not the first one to polarize Americans, but he is I think the first one to at least not try to give lip service to bring Americans together,” says Mr. Cook. “It probably seems a lot more destructive and harmful to voters than it ever did before.”

Indeed, 54 percent of Americans say they want political leaders to compromise to get things done, an October Gallup poll found, compared with 18 percent who said they would prefer leaders to stick to their beliefs even if little gets done.

Rep. Elise Stefanik  (R) of New York – a co-chair of the center-right Tuesday Group caucus – believes there is something deeper at work in Congress, where a new generation of young, practical lawmakers are seeking to bridge the yawning partisan divide they were elected into.

“They have come of age in adult life where there has been quite a lot of gridlock,” says Representative Stefanik, who serves with Hurd on the House Intelligence Committee and with O’Rourke on the House Armed Services Committee, where they co-sponsored a bill allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to hire doctors faster.

“I think younger members … they’re looking for results, they’re looking for good ideas.”

Wooing Texas Republicans

“Going through this Wendy’s line, this may be a hamburger too far,” O’Rourke told Texas Monthly during the road trip. “We just made a bipartisan decision to leave this Wendy’s and go to Chick-fil-A.”

Statistically speaking, O’Rourke was the second-most bipartisan Texas representative in the last House session, per the Lugar Center’s Bipartisan Index, which determines rankings based on the number of bills a politician sponsors or co-sponsors with a member of the opposing party. Nine of the 24 members of the Texas Congressional delegation were considered “bipartisan” in the Index. Hurd was sixth.

O'Rourke is young and charismatic, with floppy hair and a toothy smile reminiscent of Bobby Kennedy. His Senate campaign seems to be generating enthusiasm among Democratic voters. He outraised Senator Cruz in the first quarter after declaring his candidacy. He draws big crowds in person and online. Twelve thousand people tuned in for a Facebook Live video of him getting a haircut.

But if he is to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994 – the longest losing streak of any state party in the country – appealing to Republican voters will be critical, experts say.

That seems to be where O’Rourke is focusing his efforts.

His campaign has been defined by long road trips – this time to town hall meetings in remote and conservative towns around Texas. The town halls often involve uncomfortable debates with residents. One woman in the West Texas town of Fort Stockton, for example, told him she wanted to see Obamacare repealed.

“If President Trump, if [Paul Ryan] the Speaker of the House, have a better way to cover people less expensively, they can call it ‘Trumpcare’ and Beto O’Rourke would vote for it in a second,” he told her.

The strategy makes sense when you consider that O’Rourke is running against Cruz, a man who helped incite a government shutdown in 2013 and who wears his GOP colleagues’ frustration with him as a “badge of honor” and proof of his outsider status.

The El Paso congressman favors small, incremental gains over big, zero-sum ideological stands.

Comprehensive and progressive immigration reform, for example, is one of his larger goals, but nothing progressive is likely to pass a GOP-controlled Congress and White House. Instead, he is working to reform parts of immigration law, such as for family members of US citizens permanently barred from re-entering the country because of a technical issue.

He has authored a bill that would let a federal judge decide if those family members can re-enter the country, a bill Hurd signed onto after their road trip. (O’Rourke also signed onto one of Hurd’s bills.)

“I can hold out for [comprehensive immigration reform] and go bust in this session,” he says, “or I can in the meantime work on things that can make the situation better.”

“I try to keep an open mind and work with anyone who I can find some common ground with,” he adds.

The spy-turned-congressman

While their friendship could help O’Rourke, it is likely a greater asset for Hurd. As the representative for the 23rd District of Texas, showing bipartisanship is more than an asset for him. It’s a requirement.

“Being in the only competitive district in Texas,” he said in the “ABC News” interview, “my job is to get things done, and people back home appreciate that.”

The 23rd covers eight driving hours and 800 miles of arid West Texas brush and desert between San Antonio and El Paso. It is 70 percent Hispanic, includes big city suburbs, small country towns, and Big Bend National Park. Its southern boundary is one-third of the US-Mexico border, and it is larger than 29 states.

In the decade it has been drawn this way, no person has ever held the district for more than a single term – until voters re-elected Hurd by just over 3,000 votes (a 1.3 percent margin of victory) last year. Four people have entered the Democratic primary to challenge him next year, including a female Air Force veteran. It is “one of the five most competitive Congressional seats in the country,” says Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based GOP strategist.

“Showing bipartisanship, showing effectiveness, demonstrating legislative success – those are all critical in that district, no matter who the representative is,” he adds.

Hurd, who didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment, seems to accomplish this by sticking to his expertise in computer science and national security. He worked as an undercover CIA agent in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and seems to live for granular, unsexy issues such as I.T. procurement.

But a practical approach to lawmaking is not enough on its own to win a coin-flip district like the 23rd. That approach is reinforced by an intensive personal presence, giving constituents ample opportunity to tell him what they expect.

The banner example of this is “DC2DQ,” an exhaustive tour at small-town Dairy Queen restaurants – a strategy that echoes O’Rourke’s own small town-focused Senate campaign.

“Everyone knows about his Dairy Queen tour,” says Stefanik. 

Cook, the Democratic strategist, saw Hurd speak in person at an annual banquet celebrating the Big Bend Conservancy.

“If I didn’t know anything about Will Hurd, if I wasn’t political and if I just walked in there barely aware [he] was my member of Congress, I would think, ‘That guy’s all right,’ ” he says. “And by the way, I probably wouldn’t have got any hints about which party he belonged to.”

You can imagine Hurd being exactly what the GOP had in mind when it released its “autopsy report” following the 2012 election: A smart, charismatic, African-American Republican representing a majority-Hispanic district.

But that vision of the Republican Party was interrupted by the rise of Trumpism, and Hurd’s career, along with other fellow moderates, may have stalled along with it.

Today’s GOP “is Trumpian, it’s [Alabama Senate candidate] Roy Moore, it’s the tea party,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It’s just a hard time to be a sensible person.”

Since retaining his seat on the same night as Trump’s victory, Hurd has been walking the tightrope between criticizing the president but not alienating his base.

While he votes in line with Trump’s position 96 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis, he voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act this year, and he is a vocal critic of a southern border wall. And he’s also friends with a Democrat.

If there is a big pushback against Trump’s populist brand, Hurd “might not have hit his ceiling,” Theriault says.

But if there is no pushback?

“I think he could have a long and fruitful career as the representative from that district,” Theriault continues, “and not much more.”

A new generation?

While the trip certainly cast members of Congress in a refreshing light, O’Rourke has said it also elevated Americans’ compassion and kindness above the usual cynicism seen on social media. He recalled leaving a late-night stop at Gibson’s Donuts in Memphis, Tenn., where a waiting crowd worried whether Hurd had his seatbelt on and if O’Rourke had enough coffee.

When the two pulled up at the Capitol steps in their rented Chevy Impala, a dozen people, a local news crew, and a man with a Texas flag were waiting. O’Rourke put on a tie while Hurd, wearing his friend’s coat, answered questions. After getting properly dressed and cracking a few jokes (“If I start being mean to him it’s because of separation anxiety,” Hurd said), they walked up the stairs, shook hands, signed off Facebook Live, and entered the House chamber.

Their friendship “shows that young members are willing to work and reach across the aisle,” Stefanik says. “I’m hopeful more of these new generations of leaders will be elected and help cut through the divide.”

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