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The Strangest Candidacy
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The Strangest Candidacy

Why on earth is Will Hurd running for president?

Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd speaks to guests at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Spring Kick-Off on April 22, 2023, in Clive, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As a pundit by trade, I like to think that I can hot-take my way to a plausible-ish explanation of any political development, no matter how nonsensical that development might be.

The Trump era has tested my confidence many times, most recently when you-know-who chose to go on Fox News and basically confess to the elements of the federal crimes he’s been charged with. Reason is unequal to the task of analyzing why things happen in an age of unreason. But that’s what separates the pundit men from the pundit boys: If you can squeeze 2,000 more or less rational words out of what’s plainly irrational, there’s a job for you in this industry.

On most days I can do it, albeit in Trump’s case often with help from the DSM-IV. With news breaking this morning that former Rep. Will Hurd has entered the Republican presidential primary, today is not one of those days.

I’ve got nothing. And I’m going to write an entire column describing just how much nothing I’ve got.

Most presidential candidacies are hopeless yet rational. Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, has zero chance of becoming president but an excellent and growing chance of becoming an attraction on the right-wing vaudeville circuit after the primary ends. A weekend show on Fox News is probably already his for the asking.

Even Doug “Who?” Burgum has somewhat rational reasons for running. He’s in his late 60s, he’s made of money, he’s term-limited as governor of North Dakota, and his name recognition is probably a bit higher in nearby Iowa than it is everywhere else. He wouldn’t be the first billionaire to blow ungodly sums on a vanity candidacy for president and he won’t be the last. Why not run? He has nothing to lose. It’ll be fun!

There are many reasons to run for president apart from, you know, trying to become president. What makes Will Hurd confounding is that he plainly has no chance of winning yet also has no obvious ulterior motive to run that I can discern.

Hurd served three terms in Congress between 2014 and 2020, winning each of his elections in southern Texas by the skin of his teeth. Before that he spent nine years working for the CIA in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. He’s biracial, just 45 years old, and spent his time in Washington staking out centrist positions on everything from gay rights to immigration to Obamacare. His “vibe” as a candidate reminds me of Marco Rubio’s in 2016—young and optimistic, a “what unites us is greater than what divides us” avatar of a more diverse center-right GOP that Republican voters ideally would prefer.

It didn’t work out for Marco. It won’t work out for Hurd either.

To his credit, he’s willing to do something that the Marco Rubio of 2023 is not by criticizing Donald Trump. Watch for it in his announcement video.

He called Trump out in a tweet today as well, a show of bravado in a party in which most of the frontrunner’s own challengers are afraid to use his name when attacking him. If nothing else, it’ll be nice to have one more figure in the race doing his part to try to normalize dissent about Emperor Palpatine.

But which “lane” is Hurd running in, exactly? As far as I can tell, all available lanes have already been filled—and then some.

He’s not running in the “conservative media star wannabe” lane. That’s Vivek. Hurd is far too squishy on policy to qualify.

He’s not running in the “billionaire out on a lark” lane. That’s Burgum. As far as I know, Will Hurd is not a rich man.

He’s not running in the “candidate you prefer if you can’t stand either Trump or DeSantis” lane. That’s Mike Pence. And Tim Scott. And Nikki Haley.

Lord knows, he’s not running in the “VP hopeful” lane. No nominee would risk alienating Trump-worshipers in the general election by putting a frequent Trump critic like Hurd on the ticket.

He is running in the “Never Trumper willing to speak hard truths about the cult leader” lane, but that lane is surprisingly crowded. It’s Chris Christie’s and Asa Hutchinson’s lane. And with due respect to Hurd, he’s not going to out-charisma Christie in throwing roundhouses at Donald Trump. Given his late start and the RNC’s requirement of 1 percent in polling and 40,000 donors to qualify for the debates, it’s frankly unlikely that he’ll ever share a stage with Trump to press his case in person.

Even Hurd’s novelty as a nonwhite Republican—a promising niche in cycles past—isn’t so novel this time with Scott, Haley, and Ramaswamy having already established themselves as candidates.

His résumé, while impressive, isn’t the stuff of presidential hopefuls. A former CIA agent turned congressman typically would start his climb toward the White House by running statewide for governor or Senate first, rough sledding for a centrist like Hurd in a state as red as Texas. (Incumbent congressmen almost never seriously contend for the presidency, let alone former congressmen.) He could compensate for that lack of credentials if he had enough name recognition, as Trump did in 2016, but he has next to none. Moderate Republicans searching for a centrist champion on policy would be better off with a governor like Larry Hogan who’s built a national profile as a Trump critic than with Hurd.

And with due respect to the candidate, he’s not charismatic. A dynamo on the stump might plausibly build a constituency as the campaign wears on but the soft-spoken guy from south Texas risks being drowned out by upstarts like Christie and Ramaswamy.

So what’s Will Hurd’s theory of how he’ll make a splash in the primary?

The answer, as hard as it is to believe, is … policy.

Last year, when he was first thinking about running, he sat for an interview with Tim Alberta of The Atlantic. On what planet do you stand a chance of leading Donald Trump’s party?, Alberta asked him—in so many words. The moderate voters are out there, Hurd replied, sounding like he was trying to convince himself. All a candidate needs to do is turn them out.

He does, however, see another path forward—one that depends less on persuading those hardened partisans and more on mobilizing a different kind of voter. The overwhelming majority of conservative people in this country, Hurd says, are not watching Fox News every night or imbibing conspiracy theories online. They are not politically neurotic. In fact, they may have never voted in a primary to choose a nominee for president—and that’s the point. “They have been busy trying to put food on their table, put a roof over their head, take care of the people they love,” he says. “But now they’re getting fed up. They are tired of everybody. They are ready for something different.”

“Look, there’s some people I’m not going to appeal to—the right-wingers. That’s okay. But there’s more of the other people. The normal people. And I’m going to find them,” he says. “It will be hard. The cost per acquisition of those voters is higher than it is for the traditional Republican primary voter—you know, the people who have voted in the last four primaries. That’s why most people don’t bother trying to find them or turn them out.”

He talked with Alberta in sweeping terms about major challenges facing America—China, job disruption driven by AI, even quantum computing and biohacking. He’s a smart, serious guy with his eye on the ball about how to prioritize politically, barely concealing his contempt for culture-war shiny objects.

All of which only deepens the mystery: On what planet does he stand a chance of leading Donald Trump’s party?

The Trump-era GOP cares so little about policy that the current party platform amounts, essentially, to “we want whatever he wants.” Trump has built a lead of 30+ points in primary polling running on a message of “retribution” against the right’s enemies inside and outside of government, not a policy plan. His lead exploded at the beginning of April not because of any development on the issues but because he was indicted in Manhattan for crimes related to the Stormy Daniels hush-money payoff.

No one, not even Trump himself, seems able to broker a durable consensus among nationalists and traditional conservatives on most substantive policy questions. Yet Will Hurd thinks he’s going to do so?

By pushing, of all things, “a wholesale reorientation of our politics—away from the dopamine-inducing cultural conflicts of the day, and toward the generational trials that will shape American life in the 21st century,” in Alberta’s words?

It’s worth reviewing just how heretical toward populist dogma Hurd has been over the years to understand how unlikely he is to gain a following. He’s not just on the other side of the culture war from Trump-era Republicans in many respects, he’s plainly disdainful of their positions.

After the Access Hollywood tape emerged in 2016, Hurd declared that he wouldn’t vote for Trump. A year later he condemned the first iteration of Trump’s “Muslim ban” and a year after that slammed him for siding with Putin against the U.S. intelligence community in Helsinki. He was a vocal critic of the border wall, calling it a “third-century solution” to a 21st-century problem. He voted for the Equality Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He joined Democrats in denouncing Trump’s infamous tweets urging Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive members of “the Squad” to go back where they came from. Per Alberta, he titled the third chapter of the book he published last year “Don’t Be an A–hole, Racist, Misogynist, or Homophobe,” presenting it as an open letter to the GOP.

He also voted against repealing Obamacare in 2017, which wasn’t technically a culture-war issue but doubled as one given the grassroots right’s ardor to own the libs by undoing their favorite president’s most significant legislative accomplishment.

Hurd once even drove to D.C. with one of Republicans’ least favorite Democrats, his then-colleague in the House, Beto O’Rourke, and livestreamed the trip as if it were a buddy comedy. It’s hard to think of a GOP legislator who ignored MAGA sensitivities as comprehensively as he did between 2016 and 2020, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger included. On Thursday, a thread at Free Republic about his presidential announcement referred to him as “Will McRomBush.”

Despite his full-spectrum apostasy against populism, Hurd also managed to sound just weak enough about Trump at times to irk Never Trumpers. In 2019 he voted against impeaching the former president for trying to leverage weapons shipments to Ukraine into political dirt on Joe Biden. He waffled on whether he’d vote to reelect Trump in 2020. Even today, in declaring his candidacy, some Trump critics found his both-sides jabs at Biden needlessly dishonest given that he has nothing to lose by running on the unvarnished truth.

Not only will “Will McRomBush” not lead Trump’s party, in other words, he might not even be the consensus Never Trump choice. Those craving the emotional catharsis of seeing Trump pummeled will likely prefer Christie. Those eager to cast a protest vote for an old-school conservative will favor Hutchinson. To the extent having a third anti-Trump candidate in the race achieves anything, it may be to further divide the all-important bloc that wants a different nominee in 2024. Which, of course, would reduce the chances of a different nominee being chosen.

So why bother running?

Last year, after the Alberta interview was published, Tim Miller of The Bulwark compared the prospects of a Hurd 2024 candidacy to the fate of a campaign he worked on in 2012, Jon Huntsman’s presidential run. Huntsman ran on the same sort of “let’s get serious” message as Hurd aims to, years before the party caught Trump fever en masse and embraced its new image as a celebrity-authoritarian circus act. Even so, Huntsman ended up skipping Iowa upon realizing that he had no chance to win there and flamed out after finishing third in New Hampshire.

If Huntsman couldn’t compete in the pre-Trump GOP, Miller wondered, how can Will Hurd compete in the post-Trump GOP, a party in which being charged with a felony is apt to give you a bounce in the polls?

The best I can do to explain it is … idealism.

Idealism is almost never the right answer when assessing political motives, but as Arthur Conan Doyle famously said: “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Hurd can’t possibly believe he might win. He’s too smart for that. He’s not running to become famous either, as being well-known as a Trump-hater isn’t typically a path to bigger things on the American right. To the contrary, this will make him persona non grata in Republican circles for years to come inasmuch as he wasn’t already.

He’s not running to become an MSNBC contributor. He doesn’t need to, as he was already qualified for that gig. There’s always room on non-Fox cable news for a Republican politician who’s decided that Trump is a menace to democracy, whether or not that politician is running for president.

I think Hurd talked himself into thinking that there really is a Will-Hurd-ish moderate “silent majority” out there among Republican voters that might respond to a serious issue-based campaign if only a candidate would offer them one. “I believe the Republican Party can be the party that talks about the future, not the past,” he told CBS in an interview on Thursday morning. “We should be putting out a vision of how do we have unprecedented peace, how do we have a thriving economy, how do we make sure our kids have a world class education, regardless of their age and location. We can do this.”

Alas, we cannot. The modern GOP believes that the future is the past; it ain’t called “Make America Great Again” for nothing. There’s less than zero reason to think it might abandon demagogic cultural revanchism for center-right technocracy anytime soon. And to the extent some idealistic young politician in the Rubio/Hurd mold figures out a way to rally Republicans behind a more serious, forward-looking governing program, it’s not going to happen when Donald Trump himself is an option on the ballot. Every election in which Trump is involved ends up as a referendum on him, all the more so when he’s working tirelessly to reframe the primary as some sort of death match between him and the “deep state.”

But it’s nice that there are still Will Hurds around on the right, dreaming big dreams for their party. He’s young enough that someday, in the distant future after Trumpism has passed away, he might again be touted as a prospect in a “new” Republican Party thanks to the cred he earned by challenging Trump directly in 2024. Until then, though, he’ll need to figure out what to do with himself. “For the first time in his adult life,” Alberta said of Hurd last spring, “the guy who’d climbed so quickly—from college class president to star CIA operative to lone Black Republican in the House—didn’t know his next move.” Now he knows. I suppose that’s a reason to run for president.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.