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Democrat Plays 'Trump' Card In Texas Toss-Up Congressional Race

A Donald Trump pinata hangs from the ceiling inside Danny's Restaurant in Eagle Pass, at Pete Gallego supporters watch the first presidential debate.

The Democrat running in U.S. House District 23 is playing the “Trump” card. Pete Gallego believes Republican Donald Trump’s immigration rhetoric has so offended voters in this predominantly Latino border district that he can reclaim the seat he narrowly lost to Republican Will Hurd two years ago.

In an eatery in the border town of Eagle Pass, a Donald Trump piñata hangs from the ceiling. Democrat congressional candidate Pete Gallego’s campaign is hosting this first presidential debate watch party. Guadalupe Cardona’s eyes burn as he watched Trump on TV.

“Well, Mr. Trump—he doesn’t know our border,” says Cardona. “I’ve lived at the border all my life, and we have good people and we have bad people, but not the way he mentions it. I know a lot of people are going to vote for him, but I’m not.”

Cardona says he’s concerned with how Trump began his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’—among other things.

“He’s hurt a lot of people,” says Cardona. “Especially the African-American people and of course the Hispanics. And I don’t think we’re going to take that lying down.”

Debate watchers in Eagle Pass, Texas.

Donald Trump fans are hard to find here in Maverick County. In the last two presidential elections, almost 8 in 10 voters here went for the Democrat. There’s speculation more will turnout for Hillary Clinton this year, because Trump is so unpopular.

But the population center for this district is further North around San Antonio and Bexar County, where Republican turnout helped Will Hurd unseat Gallego in 2014. That’s where Gallego knocks on doors, hoping to shore up support and win over some swing voters who don’t like the GOP nominee.

“The one thing that local people want to talk about is Donald Trump,” says Gallego. “I have never seen it to this degree where a national presidential candidate makes himself a local issue.”

Gallego asks South Side voter Jesus Huerta to help him beat Republican Will Hurd, but the conversation turns to the top of the ticket.

“That Hurd, he’s learning from Trump,” says Huerta. “He’s just lying and cheating and nobody cares.”

“It’s scary,” says Gallego. “Trump has certainly stirred the pot.”

Gallego, an Alpine attorney, represented the border region as a Texas House Representative for two decades. He says Trump’s comments have really saturated the Latino community.

“He is a topic of conversation,” says Gallego. “Not that I bring him up.”

Democrat Pete Gallego knocks on doors on San Antonio's South Side

But Gallego does call out Trump a lot in campaign emails and attack ads. Meanwhile, Republican rival Will Hurd seldom speaks the “T” word.

“My position has remained unchanged and it’s been this way for awhile,” Hurd told reporters at a recent Bexar County campaign event. “I haven’t endorsed him. Until I see a change in his national security policy, and how he respects women and minorities.”

Hurd is a former CIA agent, a cyber security authority and one of 3 black Republicans in Congress.

“I know my opponent Pete Gallego is scared,” says Hurd. “He’s scared because of this kind of support. He’s scared that for two years he was in office, he did absolutely nothing. We’ve had a record of accomplishments.”

Hurd beat Gallego by just 2 percentage points last time. He has high-profile conservative support in Texas and beyond. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan will campaign with Hurd next week. Ohio Governor John Kasich and Texas Governor Greg Abbott have showed up in San Antonio to support the vulnerable Republican.

Governor Abbott supports Donald Trump, but keeps that to himself when campaigning for Hurd.

“If Will Hurd were to lose that race, it puts Congress back on the pathway of having someone ascend to office who is even more disliked than Hillary Clinton,” Abbott tells Hurd supporters. “And that person in Nancy Pelosi.”

Republican Congressman Will Hurd and Texas Governor Greg Abbott and a Bexar County Hurd campaign event.

The only evidence of Trump’s candidacy here is Vivian Brown’s “Make America Great Again” hat, which matches with her red-and-white Hurd T-shirt. Brown says she thinks having Trump on the ticket will actually help Hurd.

“There’s a lot of excitement—where I don’t see that excitement on the Democratic side,”  People really want Donald Trump to win.

About 15,000 District 23 Republican primary voters chose Trump, or 26 percent. Rice University political science professor Mark Jones says Hurd could lose those loyal Trump votes if he condemns the Donald.

“It’s really a no-win situation for Hurd,” says Jones. “Probably the best option for Hurd is continuing maintaining the somewhat ambivalent position.”

At the Eagle Pass watch party, Trump isn’t winning anyone over. Juanita Martinez says turnout is low in her heavily-Democratic county, but she’s hoping for record numbers this time.

Vivian Brown, with Bexar County Republican women, supports both Will Hurd and Donald Trump.

“I understand the dire necessity for our voters to come out and vote at this election,” says Martinez. “I mean, we do not want Donald Trump.” 

When Martinez tries to register voters around town, she says she meets a lot of people without U.S. citizenship.

“But you know what they say?” Martinez asks. “They say ‘No, mam. Yo no puedo votar. I cannot vote. But I promise you, my children who are American citizens and were born in this country, I will make sure this time, they come out to vote—because of Trump.’”

If voters in this toss-up district see Trump and Hurd as a team, the Republican Congressman may be in trouble.