SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Texas Rep. Will Hurd's Urdu is better than his Spanish, even though the latter is the preferred language of many constituents in his sprawling, two-thirds Hispanic district.
The 37-year-old worked for the CIA for almost a decade, much of it undercover in Pakistan, where he mastered the national tongue. "When I had a long beard and wore local clothes, my Urdu was good enough to get the local discount at the bazaar," Hurd said.
Yet, he's comfortable being a political outlier: Texas' first black Republican elected to Congress since Reconstruction and only one of two black GOP House members along with Utah's Mia Love — underscoring just how much the GOP has struggled in appealing to minority voters. He also has avoided the tea party rhetoric on polarizing issues like immigration and border security embraced by many of his fellow Republicans at home and across the nation.
"Everyone wants to know how the black dude got elected in the Hispanic district," said Hurd, whose territory encompasses 820 miles of the Mexico border. "It's because I engage people where they are and talk about the topics they care about. That transcends race, it transcends gender. It transcends party. So, for me, we've already done this and we're going to do it again."
It won't be easy. Hurd edged one-term Democrat Pete Gallego by less than 2,500 votes in November, a low-turnout midterm election in the midst of a national Republican wave.
Gallego isn't ruling out a rematch in 2016, when a presidential election will mean higher nationwide turnout, usually a boon for Democrats. "Two thousand votes difference? I have that many cousins," Gallego joked.
And National Democratic organizations desperately want to reclaim the district, which stretches from Hurd's native San Antonio to El Paso over two times zone and 29 counties; it's also changed party hands in each of the last three election cycles.
Democratic Congressional Committee spokesman Matt Thornton said of facing Hurd again in 2016: "That's a winnable race."
None of that is lost on the national GOP, which is grooming Hurd for political prominence. He delivered the GOP response to President Barack Obama's weekly radio address in October before he was elected and the party gave him a "Black Republican Trailblazer Award" after barely 30 days in office.
"Folks want to make sure that I get re-elected," Hurd acknowledged. He had help getting this far, too, with advertising from the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity political action committee in the 2014 campaign, which saw both he and Gallego bring in a combined $6 million-plus in campaign cash and outside donations.
It wasn't Hurd's first race. He lost his 2010 congressional bid in a Republican primary runoff, saying he focused on the wrong parts of the district but learned from those mistakes four years later.
In the state of tea party firebrands like Ted Cruz, Hurd has struck a more moderate tone, insisting that securing the border can't come at the expense of doing business in the region.
"A lot of my colleagues in the interior of the country like to talk about border security. I always ask them, 'When was the last time you've been to the border?'" said Hurd, who recently helped lead some members of Congress on a trip through parts of California, Arizona and the Rio Grande Valley to debunk notions that a full-length border wall is viable.
Such conservative-centrist positions sway voters like Marisol Robles, a lifelong Democrat who abandoned the party in 2012.
"I find that's a struggle for a lot of Hispanics," said Robles, who attended a recent Hurd speech in San Antonio. "They have to compromise their conservative values to stay Democrats."
Another of Hurd's talking points is cybersecurity, a field in which he worked after CIA stints in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. He now heads the Information Technology Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which focuses in part on cybersecurity.
"I plan on stepping up on issues where I have an expertise on," Hurd said, "so we're only going to get stronger."
No matter what Hurd does, Gallego believes 2016 in the district could hinge on possible Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have boosted turnout among Hispanics in South and West Texas in previous presidential electoral cycles.
"I can see that there is a concerted effort to build him up," Gallego said of Hurd's national backing, "but I don't know if that makes any difference in the long run."