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Will Hurd Launches His ‘Dark Horse’ Presidential Bid
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Will Hurd Launches His ‘Dark Horse’ Presidential Bid

Plus: DeSantis tries to outflank Trump on vaccine skepticism.

Will Hurd at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry Naming Ceremony on the U.S. border with Mexico in Tornillo, Texas on April 19, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Happy Friday! We’re having flashbacks to high-school social drama—or maybe just the movie Mean Girls—after reading this morning’s Politico story about attempts to purge members from the House Freedom Caucus.

Up to Speed

  • Could another Florida man be entering the Republican race for president? The New York Times reported Thursday that Sen. Rick Scott is “considering” getting into the race, citing two people “familiar with the discussions.” Scott and his political team have disputed that the 70-year-old Republican is doing anything other than running for another term in the Senate in 2024. “What’s accurate is I’m running for the Senate, I’m not running for president,” Scott told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon.
  • In testimony released by the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday, the lead IRS investigator into Hunter Biden’s tax fraud case said the agency had obtained a threatening text message sent by Hunter in 2017 to a Chinese business partner. In the message, Hunter claimed to be sitting next to his father, who by then was no longer vice president—a fact that, if true, would undermine President Joe Biden’s claim that he knew nothing of his son’s business dealings with foreign nationals. Hunter agreed to a plea deal with the Department of Justice earlier this week on charges of tax fraud that will allow him to avoid prosecution on a felony gun charge.
  • Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat, was censured by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives on Wednesday. The censure resolution, which passed along party lines 213-209 with 6 Republicans voting present, accused Schiff of “abusing his privileged access to classified information” and “purposely deceiving” Congress about Russian connections to the 2016 Trump campaign. An embarrassing, if partisan, formal reprimand like this may end up helping Schiff, who is running in a competitive race for California’s Senate seat next year against multiple other Democrats. 
  • A year ago tomorrow, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. A new NBC News poll found that 61 percent of voters disapprove of Dobbs, which overturned the nationwide legality of abortion set by Roe v Wade—a slight uptick from the 58 percent who said they disapproved in the same poll 2 months after the Dobbs decision, in August 2022. The partisan breakdown is instructive as well, with 60 percent of independents and even 31 percent of Republicans saying they disapprove of the decision. And one key constituency the GOP says it wants to win back, suburban women, remains overwhelmingly opposed to Dobbs, at 66 percent.

Will Hurd Joins the Race, Expanding the GOP Field (Again)

Will Hurd is one of many Republicans who say they worry nominating Donald Trump is tantamount to sealing President Joe Biden’s reelection. That assessment did not stop the former Texas congressman from launching a longshot White House bid that threatens to further divide the GOP electorate and propel Trump to victory in the primary.  

“I am a dark horse and I recognize that,” Hurd told The Dispatch Thursday morning in a telephone interview, immediately after revealing his 2024 plans. “Debate is a good thing; options are a good thing. We shouldn’t be afraid of having a diversity of voices.” 

Hurd, 45, began his campaign with a blistering attack on Trump, the undisputed Republican frontrunner, joining other candidates—former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence—who also entered the GOP contest this month and did the same. But just as they did, Hurd rejects the premise that his candidacy dilutes the anti-Trump vote and helps guarantee the former president’s nomination.

“Donald Trump hasn’t won an election since 2016. I’ve got to remind people that polls don’t anticipate who will vote, polls are a snapshot in time. Because everybody thought in 2022 there was going to be a huge red wave the night before the damn election,” Hurd said. 

“If the GOP wants to address things like the crisis at our border; actually have some plans to be tough with China; to actually address persistent inflation—to deal with making sure our kids are the best educated kids in the world; then we have to win freaking elections in November,” he added. “Donald Trump gives us the worst chance to do that in 2024.” 

Trump, pointing to polls showing him neck and neck with Biden, can argue otherwise.

Before retiring in 2021, Hurd spent three terms representing a swing House district stretching from San Antonio to the Rio Grande and for hundreds of miles along the Mexican border. Each of his general election campaigns were nail biters, decided by an average of 1.2 percentage points. Hurd, once the sole black Republican in Congress, credits his electoral success partly to the time and attention he devoted to courting Hispanic Democrats in the several, mostly Spanish-speaking areas of his district.

Serving a diverse constituency in Congress and drawing on his past career as a clandestine CIA spy in terrorist hotspots like Afghanistan, Hurd has emerged as a conservative pragmatist. While he is clearly a conservative, he seems to have little taste for the divisive cultural issues animating the Republican base and favored by leading candidates like Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Rather, Hurd prefers to focus on developing consensus solutions to existential problems, particularly in foreign policy.  

His campaign will reflect that, testing a theory that there is an underserved market of Republican voters who want something different than what most primary candidates are offering. In our interview, Hurd said his top priorities are addressing “persistent” inflation and the economic challenges posed by artificial intelligence technology; the “new cold war with China;” and a public education system he described as failing. One word Hurd never uttered: “Woke.”

“I talk about the things that I talk about because those are things people ask me when I’m with them. Not everyone is doom scrolling on social media,” Hurd said. “This is not something I go into blindly. I’m a data driven guy. I’ve spent time on the ground in places like New Hampshire and Iowa … I have a thesis and we’re going to test that thesis out.”

“We can’t just preach to the choir; we’ve got to grow the choir, we’ve got to grow the electorate—in the primary and the general election,” Hurd added.

Hurd plans to begin testing his thesis Monday in New Hampshire, where he plans to spend the majority of his time campaigning as he attempts to climb into contention. 

A senior adviser confirmed that Hurd’s campaign is headquartered in San Antonio but declined to provide details on the top members of the team or its leading consultants. Hurd’s bid will be aided by a super PAC, Future Leaders Fund. The group was the foundation of Hurd’s political operation since he left Congress. But it was taken over by supporters and walled off from his presidential campaign to satisfy federal election law barring coordination with super PACs. 

For Hurd, a major hurdle in his bid to become competitive in the primary is qualifying for the first televised Republican debate, scheduled for August 23 in Milwaukee. Aside from reaching the donor and polling thresholds established by the Republican National Committee, there’s the matter of the pledge to back the eventual GOP nominee the RNC is requiring candidates to sign to earn a spot on the debate stage. “I won’t be signing any kind of pledges,” he said in a CNN interview Thursday evening.

That puts Hurd’s ability to participate in the debate, and grow his support, in doubt. But the Texan told The Dispatch he is used to people betting against him and looks forward to proving the naysayers wrong.

“I’ve always been able to win an election that people didn’t think I had the opportunity to win because the powers that be, whichever they are, were supporting the other person,” Hurd said. “I’ve always learned how to grow the electorate and the opportunity to do that exists in a presidential election as well.”

Ron DeSantis Woos Vaccine Conspiracists

Ron DeSantis, as we’ve often noted in this newsletter, doesn’t want to target voters already inclined to dislike Trump—he wants to hit the former president only on terms base Republicans will appreciate. This may be a canny primary strategy, since few Republicans have found success critiquing the former president from the center. But his quest to find places to tag Trump as soft has led DeSantis to some alarming places, particularly when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines.

Trump’s stewardship of America’s pandemic response in 2020 was, to put it mildly, controversial. But it’s widely acknowledged that his biggest pandemic accomplishment was his maximalist approach to vaccine funding, Operation Warp Speed, which gave vaccine developers the ability to bet big on recent advances in mRNA vaccine tech. The results were successful vaccines that pulled the world out of the total-war stage of the pandemic much faster than most had predicted.

But for the guerilla tastemakers of the online right, some early COVID vaccine skepticism has hardened during the Biden years into doctrinaire vaccine hostility. There have long been questions about whether the vaccine’s extremely rare side effect of myocarditis outweighs the correspondingly low risk of serious COVID illness for young people. But in the fever swamps of social media, these reasonable-ish concerns commingle with kooky claims that the shots reprogram your DNA, contain microchips to track your movements and control your behavior, or simply kill you and those around you.   

In recent interviews, Trump has seemed unsure of how to handle this—understandably wanting credit for his role in the vaccines’ development but wary of trumpeting that accomplishment too directly. “I really don’t want to talk about it because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about—because for some reason, it’s just not,” he told Bret Baier on Fox News this week.

It was a careful statement, but DeSantis’ campaign pounced anyway: “Trump once again refuses to acknowledge any of the adverse effects,” the DeSantis War Room rapid response account tweeted. The campaign doubled down the following day: “For almost three years and counting, Donald Trump has consistently ignored, denied, and shut down those who raise safety concerns about his Warp Speed shots—even his own supporters. Why?”

Meanwhile, DeSantis himself is showing he’s perfectly willing to follow the COVID conspiracy theorists out on the branch. At an event in Florida last week, an activist asked DeSantis when people would be “held accountable for Operation Warp Speed” and whether Dr. Anthony Fauci—who served as the top infectious disease expert in the Trump and Biden administrations—should “have his assets seized like any drug lord would.”

DeSantis didn’t miss a beat. “First of all, Florida is the only state in the country that is doing anything about this,” he replied. He went on to talk about the Florida grand jury he petitioned the state supreme court to empanel earlier this year: “This is a criminal jury. It’s an investigative jury.” (Andrew reported on the creation of that grand jury at the time, and on many of the spurious arguments DeSantis deployed to accuse vaccine developers of lying about their products.)

“If we don’t bring accountability to bear on Fauci, on the CDC, on NIH, on all these corrupted institutions, they are going to do it again,” DeSantis went on. “And it will happen again.”

DeSantis didn’t always sound like this. For much of 2021, he was an effusive cheerleader for the vaccines, which he then heralded as our ticket out of the pandemic that had taken so many lives and expanded government control in so many ways. At the same time, he remained a ferocious opponent of the vaccine mandates that were then being championed by President Joe Biden, arguing people could make up their own minds about whether to receive the vaccine.

But before DeSantis can face off with Biden, he has to beat Trump. And in his strategy, that means going after not just mandates, but the COVID vaccines themselves.

Eyes on the Trail

  • Will he or won’t he? At a Thursday event in his home state of Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis avoided a reporter’s question about whether he would support Donald Trump if the former president were the Republican nominee. Instead, DeSantis used the opportunity to go after Trump, who recently, and favorably, compared the pandemic record of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, to DeSantis’ job in Florida. “When you are saying that Cuomo did better on COVID than Florida did, you are revealing yourself to just be full of it,” DeSantis said.
  • Nikki Haley on China: The presidential candidate and former UN ambassador has postponed her planned address today at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. According to AEI, Haley’s forthcoming foreign policy remarks on China have been rescheduled for Tuesday, June 27.

Notable & Quotable

“At the universities, they should be responsible for defaulted student loan debt. If you produce somebody that can’t pay it back, that’s on you.”

—Gov. Ron DeSantis at a campaign stop in North Augusta, South Carolina, on his proposed approach to student-loan debt, Thursday, June 22

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.

Thomas Dorsey is an intern for The Dispatch.