SAN ANTONIO — Donald Trump piñatas, with dark suits, oversized pink lips and unruly yellow manes in paper mache, are top sellers across South Texas — a potential sign of trouble for one of its Republican congressmen and some colleagues representing predominantly Hispanic districts across the country.
First-term Rep. Will Hurd is seeking re-election from a constituency that’s nearly 70 percent Hispanic while representing 820 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other congressional district.
Trump made a whirlwind trip Wednesday to Mexico, heightening speculation that he might back off promises to build a wall along the 1,989-mile southern border and force Mexico to pay for it. But in a fiery speech in Arizona hours later, Trump insisted again that Mexico would finance the wall and declared that millions of people in the country illegally were violent criminals who strained U.S. government services.
After he doubled down on the issue, some of Trump’s top Latino supporters abandoned their support — including Houston attorney Jacob Monty, a member of his National Hispanic Advisory Council. Trump’s standing with many other Hispanics cratered when he opened his campaign last summer by suggesting that some Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug smugglers.
That was the case in parts of Hurd’s district, which extends from San Antonio across two time zones of sparsely populated countryside to El Paso, a land area of 59,000-plus square miles — larger than 29 states.
“He insulted Hispanics,” said Sylvia Arriola, a 59-year-old administrator for a San Antonio company providing services to adults with special needs. She said much of the district was territory Mexico relinquished at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. “We’ve always been here. This was part of Mexico. We didn’t ‘come’ from anywhere.”
Hurd’s is Texas’ only competitive congressional district. Since 2008, a Democrat has won the seat during high-turnout presidential elections, only to lose it back to a Republican in the midterms. Hurd beat then-Rep. Pete Gallego two years ago by just 2,422 votes.
Gallego says he has no greater rematch weapon than Trump who “has succeeded at making himself a local issue like no other candidate I’ve ever seen.”
A 39-year-old former CIA agent who once managed undercover operations in Pakistan, Hurd hasn’t endorsed Trump, though he says the billionaire businessman still has about two months to win his vote.
“The reality is, when people are going in to make a decision about this race, they’re making a decision about THIS race,” said Hurd, Texas’ first black Republican in Congress since Reconstruction.
Hurd isn’t alone in seeking to dodge Trump’s electoral shadow. Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo has vowed not to vote for Trump and suggested his party’s nominee is deliberately trying to blow the presidential election. California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, whose district is more than 40 percent Hispanic, wrote in August that he often finds Trump’s words “disturbing, inappropriate and outlandish” but also suggested that he’d still vote for him.
Republican Rep. David Valadao represents a California Central Valley district that’s nearly three-fourths Hispanic and says he can’t support Trump because the candidate “denigrates people based on their ethnicity, religion, or disabilities.” Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman even produced an ad promising to stand up to Trump. “Honestly, I don’t care for him much,” Coffman says in it.
Other House Republicans have refused to endorse Trump but should coast to re-election, such as veteran Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Hurd’s fellow Texas Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth.
“This is a disaster for the party,” Rosario Marin, a prominent Florida Republican and former treasury secretary under President George W. Bush who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at 14, said of Trump. “If he thinks that saying all these nasty things will help get him to the White House, he’ll say them. He doesn’t care if other Republicans are left dead on the battlefield.”
Hurd says he can overcome that. While campaigning last weekend on San Antonio’s western outskirts, he knocked on the door of Michael Bell, a high school world history teacher and golf coach who called Trump “a crazy person.”
Hurd responded: “The second name down on the ballot is going to be mine, so you have a chance to feel good about pulling that lever.”
Bell conceded he still planned to vote straight-ticket Republican, saying of Trump, “I’m maybe going to have to accept some of his …” Then he trailed off, shrugging.
Darryl Dillard, a retired 20-year military veteran, also said he’s voting for Hurd and Trump. But he acknowledged “it’s very hard now to be Republican.”
“They’re saying that Republicans are biased and prejudiced and don’t look at the global picture,” Dillard said.
Gallego said that when he campaigns in Hispanic neighborhoods, he’s surprised people don’t say they dislike Trump.
“What they tell me is far more significant. It’s, ‘He doesn’t like us,’” Gallego said. “Their view is that the only way they can defend their families is to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get elected.”