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Texas' Tony Gonzales tries to fight off YouTube personality in runoff election

2 weeks ago 12



The Texas Republican Party gathered in San Antonio for its annual convention this weekend, but GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents part of San Antonio and lives there, was ambivalent about attending. 

That's not entirely surprising — one of the featured speakers was Rep. Matt Gaetz, who endorsed Gonzales' opponent, Brandon Herrera, in Tuesday's GOP primary runoff in the 23rd District. The Texas Republican Party censured Gonzales last year over his vote for gun control legislation backed by the Biden White House, introduced in the wake of the 2022 Uvalde school shooting that killed 19 students and two teachers. Uvalde is also in the 23rd District. 

Gonzales had four Republican opponents in the March primary, which stretches 800 miles from San Antonio along the U.S.-Mexico border to El Paso. Gonzales failed to secure 50% of the vote, forcing him into a runoff with Herrera, the next highest vote getter. The runoff winner will face Democrat Santos Limon in November. 

Herrera only won 24% of the vote in the March primary, but the runoff has been a headache for Gonzales. With a runoff date so long after the primary and no big-ticket races on the ballot, turnout is likely to be low.

"If this was a high-turnout election, [Gonzales] would be a lock," said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor. In a low-turnout election, "anything can happen," he said, because the most fervent voters are the ones who go to the poll. Jones said a candidate needs to "mobilize a handful of the most diehard supporters" to win.

That could be challenging for Gonzales, who's positioned himself as the pragmatic choice, compared to Herrera, a 28-year-old YouTube celebrity known as "The AK Guy" who has continually hit Gonzales over his  gun legislation vote. 

gonzales-herrera.png Brandon Herrera, Tony Gonzales

"What we're seeing in Congressional District 23 is the story we see all over Texas politics," said Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin, "which is that an incumbent, usually a Republican legislator, takes a position that is not 100% in line with the most conservative voters in their district."

This "creates the conditions for a primary challenger to try and unseat that member," Blank said. He suggested that the Uvalde vote had this very effect: "You can't detach what's going on there and the fact that an extreme gun rights YouTube personality is now in a runoff against him." 

Since the March primary, Gonzales has received endorsements from GOP establishment figures, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In addition to Gaetz, Herrera has been endorsed by other House Freedom Caucus members. 

In response to those endorsements, Gonzales said on CNN in March that he serves "with some real scumbags" and told CBS News in a recent interview that these lawmakers and his opponent aren't "serious people." 

"There's a bigger battle happening outside this race, and it is what is the future of the Republican party going to look like?" Gonzales said. "Is it going to be governing conservatives like myself, or is it going to be these bomb-throwing gestures that want to come up here and burn the place down?" 

Herrera's far-right campaign and alliance with Gaetz and the Freedom Caucus would seem to align him with former President Donald Trump, but Trump hasn't endorsed in the race and has said little about it. However, on his YouTube radio show, Herrera has made jokes about Trump's son Barron Trump and said that Trump couldn't win the general election. 

Gonzales has tried to position himself as a "MAGA" candidate, and he has endorsed Trump's presidential campaign. 

Given his backing by establishment Republicans, Gonzales has significantly outraised Herrera in the race. Gonzales has raised $3.4 million through May 8, compared to $367,000 for Herrera through the same period. 

Gonzales has attacked Herrera for having having moved to the district only in the past few years, while Herrera has pounced on Gonzales' vote in 2022 for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which included a provision for the "boyfriend" loophole for gun purchases, the first time any type of gun control legislation has passed Congress since the 1990s. Gonzales was one of 14 Republicans who voted for the bill.

In a recent interview with CBS News, Gonzales defended his vote and said he "worked very hard" to ensure the legislation "protected the Constitution, but also solved some problems." 

"What it did do is raise increased background checks for minors, and I think that is a positive thing," Gonzales said. 

Gonzales told "Face the Nation" on Sunday that he "knew it at the time" when he cast the vote for the 2022 bill that it would hurt him politically, but he insisted he's not "afraid of that vote."

Although the district includes much of the U.S.-Mexico border area, immigration has not been as contentious an issue as gun control has. University of Texas San Antonio political science professor Jon Taylor noted Gonzales had once tried to position himself as being more pragmatic on the border but has since moved further to the right, much closer to Herrera on the issue.

Gonzales was first elected in 2020 after Republican Rep. Will Hurd decided not to run again. In 2018, Hurd barely defeated Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones by just 1,000 votes. The 23rd District was once considered the "only swing district in Texas," says Blank, but the redistricting after the 2020 election made it considerably redder, which has allowed an extremist candidate like Herrera to win more votes.

If Herrera wins the primary, Blank said it's an "open question if Herrera is an electable candidate in a general election — even in a district drawn to favor Republicans." 

Caroline Linton

Caroline Linton is an associate managing editor on the political team for CBSNews.com. She has previously written for The Daily Beast, Newsweek and amNewYork.

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