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U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales prevails in primary runoff over gun influencer Brandon Herrera

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U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales prevails in primary runoff over gun influencer Brandon Herrera

May 29, 2024 | 1:02 am ET
By Matthew Choi
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U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales declares victory in primary runoff over gun influencer Brandon Herrera
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District 23 Rep. Tony Gonzales speaks with a reporter at a Starbucks in San Antonio on Aug. 24, 2022. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune)

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SAN ANTONIO — U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales declared victory in the Republican primary runoff to represent the 23rd Congressional District on Tuesday, narrowly beating back a spirited challenge from YouTuber Brandon Herrera who strived to turn the race into a referendum over his voting record on guns.

“The future of America remains as bright as ever. Thank you #TX23 for continuing to place your faith in me,” Gonzales said on social media.

Despite his massive fundraising operation and powerful allies, Gonzales’ victory was exceedingly tight. With all precincts reporting, Gonzales led by about 400 votes. The difference is within the margin where Herrera could request a recount. But Herrera indicated he'd accepted the election results, posting Thursday that the close margin despite leading such an underfunded operation was itself a major accomplishment.

"We may not have won, but we went all 12 rounds in a fight that nobody expected to even be close, and we staggered the current champ. We made history," Herrera posted on social media. "This is something I’ll be proud of until the day I die."

The result was the culmination of months of feuding between the centrist Gonzales and the right-wing of the Republican Party — which spilled out into the open in the months ahead of the election, despite pleas from leadership and the rank-and-file to keep the fighting behind closed doors.

The race was Gonzales’ first since his censure by the Texas Republican Party in March last year for taking centrist stances that the more culturally conservative state party found objectionable. The censure opened Gonzales to four challengers from the right, including former Medina County Republican Party Chair Julie Clark, former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Victor Avila and former Border Patrol Agent Frank Lopez.

Herrera is known for this online persona, dubbed “the AK Guy,” and his irreverent sense of humor in YouTube videos and podcast appearances. His off-color online reputation was seen by some in his party as a liability, but it ended up a significant platform, allowing him to widely spread his message and fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

None of the candidates got the required 50% of the votes needed to stave off a runoff in the March 5 GOP primary, with Gonzales securing 45% of the vote. Herrera received just under 25%.

The district, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and is bigger than several states, represents more of the U.S.-Mexico border than any other district in the country. It is the largest in Texas and includes parts of several metropolitan areas. It also includes Uvalde, which Gonzales represented during the Robb Elementary School shooting.

Gonzales’ censure followed his opposition to a hardline border bill by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, and his support for bipartisan gun safety legislation after the Robb Elementary shooting.

Herrera was a strong fundraiser, having raised over $827,000 ahead of the primary and over $1.3 million ahead of the run off through his official campaign committee. He attracted contributions from a who’s-who of far-right conservatives in the state and beyond, including supporters of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and former Texas state Sen. Don Huffines.

But it paled in comparison to Gonzales’ fundraising operation, which was backed by several business interests active in West Texas and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Gonzales raised over $4.5 million ahead of the runoff, a third of which was raised in April before the runoff.

Gonzales spent Tuesday crisscrossing his district, starting in San Antonio and making stops in Eagle Pass and Uvalde County. He and Herrera opted against having traditional election night parties, with Gonzales staying on the road through Tuesday evening.

Speaking outside of a San Antonio polling location on Tuesday, Herrera said the amount of money Gonzales and House Republican leadership was pouring into the race showed his grassroots campaign was a real threat.

“There’s a reason why Tony’s been asking for a lot of third party money,” Herrera said. “As somebody that [Gonzales] didn’t take seriously early on, we’ve made the uni-party spend about $8 million they weren’t expecting to.”

Herrera had the support of the House Freedom Caucus and other rabble-rousing right wingers in the Republican Party. Gonzales had beefed for years with those members on policy that he said was too extreme, including on the border and government funding. He also irked his peers when he was one of a few Republicans to vote against U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, for House Speaker. Jordan was a founding member of the Freedom Caucus and the right-wing’s top pick.

The conflict simmered under the surface through the past two years, with members generally maintaining cordial relationships in public. But all came spilling into the public in April when Gonzales called his right-wing colleagues “scumbags” and compared them to the Klu Klux Klan for refusing to vote for billions of dollars in foreign aid to Ukraine.

“It's my absolute honor to be in Congress, but I serve with some real scumbags,” Gonzales said in a CNN interview. “These people used to walk around with white hoods at night. Now they're walking around with white hoods in the daytime.”

The comments sparked a chain reaction of Freedom Caucus members to openly support Herrera.

"It is not surprising that one of the most liberal RINOs in Congress, who has egregiously fought against real border security, and votes like a Democrat, would also resort to the Democrat playbook in screaming ‘racism’ against those exposing him,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good, of Virginia, said at the time. “Thankfully, the good people of the Texas 23rd District have the opportunity to vote for change and an America First patriot, in Brandon Herrera."

Freedom Caucus members had been covertly involved in the primary beforehand. Clark and Avila both said they met with members of the group before the primary. They both said they had entered the race as much to take out Gonzales as to run themselves. After the primary election, they promptly endorsed Herrera.

Gaetz, who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus but often antagonizes Republican leadership, campaigned for Herrera in San Antonio as early as March.

House Republican leadership urged members not to primary against incumbents, and the leadership roster formally endorsed Gonzales, with House Speaker Mike Johnson fundraising for him in San Antonio in April. Several other high profile Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, endorsed Gonzales as well.

Freedom Caucus members were not shy in expressing their displeasure with leadership’s stance.

“I cannot tolerate what's happening to the people that I think are standing up for this country," Roy, who is the policy chair of the Freedom Caucus, said on KTSA at the time. “To have the speaker be in San Antonio campaigning for Tony … I’m just beside myself that that’s where things are.”

Gonzales is strategically important for Republican leadership beyond his ability to win a historically centrist seat. His relationships with moderate Republicans were an asset for leadership during the House Republican push to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Gonzales was a vocal supporter of the effort and helped recruit more moderate members to the cause. The Democratic-controlled Senate quickly tossed the articles of impeachment.

Gonzales also has the endorsement of several major interest groups in Texas, including the Texas Farm Bureau, the Texas Municipal Police Association, the National Border Patrol Council, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and the Border Commerce and Security Council. Volunteers from the International Association of Fire Fighters, a fire fighters’ union that endorsed Gonzales, showed up outside the Parman Branch Library in San Antonio on Tuesday to encourage voters to vote for Gonzales.

Gabriel Muñoz, a member of the union’s legislative committee, said the union backed Gonzales for his advocacy for firefighter funding and for removal of PFAS, a toxic class of chemicals used for its water-resistant properties, from firefighting gear. But he said the union’s endorsement was based on what candidates have done for firefighters and their entire platforms.

“When it comes to the union, we always stay centered on fire fighter issues, because our membership is not right or left,” Muñoz said.

The union has endorsed Democrats, including President Joe Biden in 2020.

Herrera is an unconventional candidate, having never served elected office and eschewing typical campaign parlance for an online presence littered with jokes about women, guns, the Holocaust, autism and other topics that have prompted concerns from some of his fellow Republicans.

Gonzales criticized him for his jokes, saying they were not becoming of a member of Congress. He took particular offense to a joke Herrera made about veterans saying: “I often think about putting a gun in my mouth, so I’m basically an honorary veteran.”

“Special place in hell for scum and villainy who mock veteran suicide or shoot up a church,” Gonzales, a Navy veteran, said in response.

But that humor was also a large part of his online appeal. Herrera has over 3.4 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, where he reviews guns, talks politics and trolls leftist activists. Herrera said he made the veteran suicide quip with veterans who used dark humor to cope with trauma. Herrera is not a veteran.

In a YouTube monologue last month, Herrera said when the time calls for it, he knows how to behave.

“I do have a higher standard of demeanor when it comes to actual political discourse on things like, you know, Twitter. It's all about knowing the time and place,” Herrera said. “It’s like you’ll swear in front of your drinking buddies, but not in front of your grandma. Unless your grandma is rad as shit.”

Several volunteers for Herrera’s campaign stood outside of San Antonio voting locations Tuesday, making the case for his bid. One volunteer, Victoria, who would not give her last name and is active duty military, said she was there to talk to voters concerned about Herrera’s past comments.

“He’s a YouTuber. He’s a comedian. He’s said things that, because it’s comedy, people might take it the wrong way and people just need to have a sense of humor about it,” she said.

Gonzales will now face Democrat Santos Limon in the November general election.

The district has historically voted for moderates of both parties, though it became more comfortably Republican after redistricting in 2021. The district voted for former President Donald Trump by 1.7 percentage points in 2020, but would have voted for Trump by 7.1 points with the new district lines.

Herrera said Tuesday that redistricting allows voters to support a more right-wing candidate in the primary without having to worry about losing to a Democrat in November.

“It’s much more conservative so now we don’t have to settle for a moderate. We can actually get the conservative we’ve always wanted,” Herrera said.

National Democratic groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC are not investing in Limon who raised just under $88,000 through February. He missed the deadline to file his April 30 report disclosing his most recent haul.

Republicans are still investing in the region for the general election. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Johnson, reserved $694,000 in English and Spanish ads for the El Paso market in November.

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