Glimpse of Texas’s political future?
© Greg Nash

Democratic freshman Rep. Pete GallegoPete Pena GallegoGOP candidate scores upset win in Texas state Senate runoff Koch group launches digital ads in tight Texas House race Iraq War vet wins Texas Dem runoff MORE and GOP challenger Will Hurd will be the only two Texans sweating their state’s congressional elections next week. 

Gallego is well-known in the area thanks to his tenure in the state House. He also served as the head of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, a group of Texas state representatives who lobby for issues affecting Hispanics.

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“He’s a rising star within the Texas delegation, and he’s somebody that it’s really important, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you want Pete Gallego to be in Congress,” Matt Angle, the director of the Texas Democratic political group Lone Star Project. “He doesn’t look at things from the left or right.”

Hurd has taken a starkly different path from most politicians, having worked almost 10 years as an undercover CIA officer, mostly in the Middle East. That included a stint working as an embassy consular officer as cover during the day.

“There’s nobody of the 435 members that are there right now that have my background or experience,” Hurd told The Hill. “People appreciate that experience.”

The 23rd District is a behemoth that spans 58,000 square miles across most of the southwestern part of the state and is 70 percent Hispanic. It mixes some of the most rural parts of West Texas with more urban populations in the San Antonio and El Paso area.

None of the other Texas congressional races are competitive. But the 23rd is unique: It has changed hands three times over the past 10 years. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district, even though Gallego flipped the seat to the Democrats.

“A lot of people have asked the question: can a non-Hispanic Republican win? I’ll say this: If Will Hurd can’t, no one can,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based GOP political consultant. “He’s going to have an impact as a next generation young-gun, African-American, smart, good experience, [who is] solid on national security.”

There has been tons of money poured into the race; Gallego has spent more than $2.3 million, compared to Hurd’s $1.1 million, and outside groups and party organizations have spent millions more.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at The University of Houston, called the district a “microcosm” of the future of Texas, which experts say will become increasingly more Hispanic, with a smaller yet tangible conservative bent.

“This is the kind of race that Texas Democrats have to win to show that they can be competitive in the state. This is what the state will look like in 20 years,” he said. “This is really hinged on what issues are going to sell, and whether or not Democrats can get a turnout they need to be able to compete.”

Throughout his first term, Gallego has tried to paint himself as an independent lawmaker, a necessity in such a volatile district. 

“If you plot the voting members of Congress, it looks like a barbell: A lot of votes on the left, a lot of votes on the right, and not a lot of votes in the middle,” the congressman told The Hill. “The people in this district, they are not extremists on the right or the left.”

He’s hammered Hurd on his support for significant budget cuts, which Gallego says would be devastating for the district’s military presence and for other federal programs.

But Hurd said that Gallego’s attempt to paint himself “as a great bipartisan champion is pretty disingenuous.” He said Gallego should have bucked his party on issues including ObamaCare, the debt ceiling and the Keystone XL pipeline.

“We are an energy economy, and this district that contains a good chunk of the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale [formation] should be leading the charge on this topic,” Hurd said.

In a majority-Hispanic district that includes most of the state’s border with Mexico, immigration resonates with many voters.

Hurd said addressing problems with a piecemeal approach, like President Obama’s executive order to grant a path to legal status for certain children living in the U.S. illegally, “created an incentive to break the law.”

He wants a “multifaceted” overhaul that emphasizes border security and increasing legal immigration. But while Hurd emphasized that he doesn’t support “amnesty or a special pathway to citizenship,” he is open to providing some illegal residents a legal option to stay in the U.S.

“I think that if you graduated from an American high school and get accepted into an American university, or if you want to go into the military, there should be a way for you to gain legal residency.” Hurd said.

Gallego said that, while he disagrees with parts of the Senate bill,  he’d vote for it if it reached the House floor and wants to send the issue to conference. 

“There are certainly a lot of pieces of the Senate immigration bill I don’t like, but I want to move the process forward,” he said. “I want immigration reform.”

There’s no public, independent polling in the race, but both parties privately concede the race is tight. Rottinghaus said the current low early voting turnout favors Hurd, but any gains could easily be erased before Election Day. 

“If the Democrats win, I think it’s a major visual win for them, because it shows that a conservative Democrat can win in a Republican-leaning district if they have enough support from Democrats and Latinos,” he said. “If he can’t win in a district like this, it shows that the Democrats have a lot of work to do and/or that their strategy is wrong.”