Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting, the Republican congressman who represents the city, Tony Gonzales, welcomed Democratic President Joe Biden to the community. They visited Robb Elementary together, attended mass at a local church and met with first responders.
Gonzales expressed gratitude, saying afterward that they “had an open, honest conversation about the realities this community is facing.”
Four days later, his tone darkened as he responded to rumors that Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, was planning a visit, too.
“YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE,” Gonzales tweeted. “Uvalde needs unity not division. Go do your job and secure the border.”
The whiplash-inducing turn was not entirely unusual for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, long a bastion of the state’s political idiosyncrasies as elected officials carefully navigate its hyper-competitive landscape. But last year, Republican lawmakers in Austin redrew the district to be safer for Gonzales, appearing to end its long streak as a national battleground.
That does not mean politics in the district have calmed down, especially after the shooting that left 21 people dead in May.
Earlier this summer, Gonzales broke with his party to support the landmark gun safety law spurred by the Uvalde massacre, and then he split with the GOP again by voting to protect same-sex marriage. Those votes led two county GOP groups in the district to censure Gonzales and another to consider it.
Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Marine veteran John Lira, is working to tap into frustrations with Gonzales that he is trying to have it both ways. And on top of it all, Gonzales is facing a relatively well-known independent candidate casting him as a RINO — Republican in name only.
Gonzales remains the favorite for a second term — given the new political makeup of the district and his stark financial advantage — but he said he is taking the race “extremely seriously” and treating it like he was still running under the famously competitive boundaries that were in effect before redistricting.
“The [elected officials] that don’t have to fight, that are just there as long as they want it — they’re like declawed indoor cats that get fancy meals when the bell rings out,” Gonzales said in an interview. “I think Texas [District] 23 — you’re like an alleycat that has to scrape and claw and fight for everything, and I think that just makes you just different. Like, you’re fighting for your life.”
This cycle, Gonzales said, he wants to “run up the score” and “take this seat off the table completely.”
A former Navy cryptologist, Gonzales won the seat in 2020 by 4 percentage points, a wide margin by the razor-thin standards of the 23rd District. He was the successor backed by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, a moderate who had built his own reputation for breaking with his party, perhaps most notably opposing former President Donald Trump’s push for a border wall.
Trump carried the 23rd District by 2 points in 2020. But redistricting morphed it into a district that Trump would have won by 7 points, and in March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee officially removed the seat from its list of targeted races.
Lira argued redistricting “didn’t do Gonzales that many favors,” noting the Cook Political Report, an election forecaster, only increased the Republican advantage of the district by 3 percentage points. And he said he is encouraged by the cracks in Gonzales’ Republican support, the political fallout from the Uvalde shooting and the strength of Beto O’Rourke’s gubernatorial campaign at the top of the ticket.
As for the case against Gonzales, Lira said, “he’s got Will Hurd’s playbook in his back pocket and he’s trying to see how he can play both sides.”
While national attention has faded from the race, Lira recently got the backing of O’Rourke, who rarely issues formal down-ballot endorsements. Lira also has the support of the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which endorsed him after the district was redrawn.
Much of the recent drama in the race has been on Gonzales’ right, however. Two county GOP chapters in the district — Pecos and Medina — censured Gonzales over his votes for the gun and marriage bills, while a third, Bexar, considered a censure but decided against it.
The Pecos County resolution cited Gonzales’ “lack of fidelity” to Republican principles and said his vote for the gun bill “egregiously violated” them.
Gonzales was one of only 14 House Republicans who voted in June for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, whose lead GOP negotiator was the state’s senior U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. The legislation strengthened background checks, offered help to states that want to implement red-flag laws and set aside millions of dollars for boosting mental health resources and school safety.
Gonzales announced his decision to support the bill on Twitter ahead of time, recalling an experience with gun violence when he was 5 years old: his abusive stepfather coming home one night and shoving a “shotgun in my mother’s mouth.” School, he said, “was my sanctuary from the chaos at home.”
Gonzales said he believed the law would have prevented the Uvalde massacre.
The next month, Gonzales was part of a larger group of 47 House Republicans who diverged from their party to support legislation to codify same-sex marriage. It was a Democratic-led response to a recent opinion from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that suggested the court’s decisions on marriage should be revisited.
On both votes, Gonzales stood alone among House Republicans from Texas.
Gonzales responded to the censures by saying he took them seriously and noting that he regularly speaks with local GOP leaders. But he was unapologetic about his vote for the gun law, saying in a statement that he would “vote for it again today and twice on Sunday.”
Dennis Scholl, a retired military psychologist from San Antonio who supports Gonzales, said “accusing him of being anti-Second Amendment is ridiculous,” especially given Gonzales’ military background and the “sad, sad thing that happened” in his district in Uvalde.
“I think he’s been responsive and made the right kind of decisions given the facts of what happened,” Scholl said. “I think he’s been intelligent and insightful about it.”
Lira criticized Gonzales’ support for the gun bill as poll-driven. While he was grateful it passed, Lira called it “a race to the bottom, to the bare minimum that could actually be done.” He advocated for further measures to prevent gun violence, like raising the age to buy an assault weapon from 18 to 21. Gonzales was noncommittal about that proposal, saying he wanted to see the impact of the new gun safety law and then go from there.
Gonzales already voted last year against bills to institute universal background checks — something Hurd supported — and to close a loophole that allows some licensed firearm sales to clear before the completion of a required background check. At the time, Gonzales bragged on Twitter about opposing those proposals, saying he “will do everything I can to oppose gun grabs from the far Left.” After the Uvalde shooting, critics seized on that tweet and another one touting his reelection support from the National Rifle Association.
As for the same-sex marriage bill, Gonzales has been less vocal about his vote. But he provided an explanation in the interview, saying it was an example of him representing his district — he noted how diverse it is geographically — and that it “wasn’t a tough vote.” He said his vote was also about growing his party, adding there are LGBTQ Republicans “who are kind of on a limb out there.”
“If the Republican Party is gonna grow and thrive, we gotta be open to that,” Gonzales said.
Lira argued that Gonzales’ vote seemed “a bit disingenuous” because he did not speak publicly about it at the time. Gonzales said that was because he did not consider the issue controversial, noting the U.S. Supreme Court has already recognized the right to same-sex marriage and that it is “kind of a done deal.”
Those votes were not the only bipartisan episodes that have marked recent months for Gonzales. He played a visible role in welcoming Biden to Uvalde, a trip that he said both sides “took a chance on.” It turned out to be “very successful,” Gonzales said, adding that he got to make his case to Biden for some proposals, particularly on mental health care.
As for blasting Mayorkas days later on Twitter, Gonzales said he was frustrated because there had been no outreach from the Department of Homeland Security about visiting, a contrast with Biden’s own trip. Gonzales and other Texas Republicans were already fierce critics of Mayorkas over his handling of the border under Biden, even calling for his impeachment.
The 23rd District covers more Mexican border than any other congressional district, and Gonzales has made it his top priority. He has found an ally across the aisle in neighboring U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, including on legislation to build four migrant-processing centers in the busiest Border Patrol sectors. That proposal has also proven to be fodder for Gonzales’ intraparty critics, who say it just accelerates illegal immigration.
Whether this all equates to a competitive election in November remains to be seen. Gonzales already cleared his March primary with nearly 80% of the vote against two challengers. He said he “spent a lot of money” in the primary despite his opponents being “fringe candidates,” calling it the kind of take-no-chances strategy he is now using for November.
Gonzales’ list of advantages for November includes a $1.3 million campaign balance at the end of June, compared to less than $100,000 for Lira.
“I do think the district is going to be a little more competitive than most people anticipated — now how competitive, I don’t know,” said Jeff McManus, chair of the Bexar County GOP. “We sort of have a three-way race going,” with the independent challenger from the right.
McManus said he wishes Gonzales “were a stronger conservative.” The two were on opposite sides of the county party chair election in May, when Gonzales backed the incumbent, John Austin, that McManus defeated.
The independent candidate is Frank Lopez Jr., a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who had to give up his position as chair of the Val Verde County GOP to run. He and Gonzales are very familiar with one another: Lopez was the campaign manager for Raul Reyes, Gonzales’ bitter rival in the 2020 Republican primary runoff for the 23rd District.
Lopez said he ran as an independent, not in the GOP primary, after seeing “the way Raul lost” at the hands of the party’s establishment, which had coalesced behind Gonzales.
“Texans are tired of these dangerous Democrat policies,” Lopez said in an interview, “but they’re also tired of the pandering and games from the RINOs, establishment and globalists in the Republican Party. I had to give Texans a true choice.”
Lopez added that he sees a “perfect storm” for his candidacy, citing the recent intraparty blowback Gonzales has faced and Democrats he meets who say they are looking for a new political home.
Gonzales jokingly asked “Who?” when asked about Lopez in an interview. More seriously, he said the 23rd District has always had a third candidate in November who gets 3% to 5% of the vote and that he expected Lopez would be no different. Still, he said he is not taking Lopez for granted and that it “helps me stay sharp.”
If Gonzales wins in November and his party captures the House majority, Gonzales, who already serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, could become even more of a rising star in the GOP caucus. He said he is focused on the committee work ahead — like the massive annual defense spending bill — and that he is not “lobbying for anything … angling for anything” in a Republican-led House.
But he has been busy making allies, lending his campaign operation to congressional candidates inside Texas and outside the state. He also has hosted multiple congressional delegations to the border and will take eight candidates there to El Paso on Friday. He serves as co-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program, which focuses on the GOP’s top recruits in House races — all valuable relationships in a Republican-led House.
First, though, Gonzales has to get through November.
Carlos Lopez, the chair of the Uvalde Democratic Party, said the families impacted by the shooting are starting to turn their grief into political action and Republicans “may not be fully anticipating the impact of that.” While their anger has largely been directed at Gov. Greg Abbott, he added, “I think they know which party stands with them versus against them.”
“We’ll see how the 23rd District goes because they made it a little difficult for a Democrat to take it,” he said, “but we’ll see.”
The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.