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Tony Gonzales faces 4 GOP primary challengers for Congressional District 23

At a Bexar County Republican Party forum, four primary candidates for the GOP nomination for CD23. The empty chair is for incumbent Tony Gonzales who declined to participate. The candidates are (right to left) Brandon Hererra, Victor Avila, Frank Lopez and Julie Clark.
Bexar County Republican Party
At a Bexar County Republican Party forum, four primary candidates for the GOP nomination for CD23. The empty chair is for incumbent Tony Gonzales who declined to participate. The candidates are (right to left) Brandon Hererra, Victor Avila, Frank Lopez and Julie Clark.

Border security is tracking as a top issue for voters, according to the Texas Politics Project. And border protection is the top issue for the candidates running for the Republican nomination to represent the congressional district with the most border miles. District 23 covers more than 800 miles of the Texas Mexico border — including Eagle Pass, the border city that has become the frontline for Operation Lone Star.

Congressman Tony Gonzales, the Republican incumbent in the race, has been accused by his four primary opponents of not being tough enough on protecting the border and being a RINO (Republican in Name Only).

At a recent forum organized by the Bexar County Republican Party with candidates seeking the GOP nomination for Congressional District 23, Gonzales was a no-show.

“We are very fortunate that we have almost 100% attendance here with our candidates that are running in CD 23,” said the Bexar County GOP Party Chair Jeff McManus.

“There's only one person missing, and unfortunately, he's been missing many times in many votes that have been taken on behalf of good constitutional conservatives. But I'm not going to mention his name,” he said.

It should be of little surprise that Gonzales skipped the event. The Texas Republican Party censured him in March and said he violated the party’s principles with his votes in support of marriage equality. After the Uvalde massacre, which is in the district, he voted in favor of a bipartisan firearms restrictions bill.

But when he spoke to reporters, Gonzales shrugged off the censure and the prospect that it would bring a cadre of primary challengers.

“Anybody who wishes to challenge me — it’s a fool's errand. I’ll run you into the deep end of the pool every single time and drown you. So, I welcome it,” he said.

Four candidates took Gonzales’ challenge. Brandon Herrera is a firearms manufacturer and a YouTube personality who calls himself "The AK Guy."

“I think it's time District 23 had a congressman who used the Constitution as their framework, not what kind of friends or money they could get in Washington,” Herrera said from the debate stage.

Victor Avila is a retired special agent with Homeland Security, “I've taken down human traffickers, drug cartels. I almost lost my life to the drug cartels,” Avila said.

Julie Clark is the chair of the Medina County GOP. “I'm here to fight for the American people and remove the corrupt politicians from office,” she said during the forum.

Frank Lopez Jr. is a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent and minister who calls himself “US Border Patriot.”

“I believe in the Republican platform, the Constitution and the word of God,” Lopez said during his introduction during the forum.

Gonzales has represented the 23rd congressional district since 2021. He won the seat after fellow Republican Will Hurd stepped down.

The sprawling southwestern Texas district used to be considered a swing district, but for the last ten years, Republicans have won it repeatedly. But election watchers wonder if a candidate wins the GOP nomination who is too far to the right, it could swing back to the Democrats.

That, however, didn’t seem to concern the four candidates at the GOP Bexar County forum.

There was little to no disagreement among the four on the issues. They seemed more interested in flexing which candidate could attack Gonzales’ record the hardest while also providing the wildest disinformation and conspiracy theories.

They all agreed that Social Security was some sort of scam — including Herrera.

“FDR and proposing Social Security kind of was the beginning of politicians promising things that they knew wouldn't be solvent in the future because they could just kick the can down the road,” Herrera said.

Avila agreed and said Social Security theft is the central problem. “I did so many cases of fraud involved in Social Security and Medicare. If you took all that money of the fraudulent activity within these two entitlements, it wouldn't be broken,” Avila said.

Lopez echoed a common canard about Social Security and illegal immigration. “And I'll tell you one of the first things we need to do is stop giving Social Security benefits to these illegal alien invaders that are pulling across our border and are tapping into our money,” Lopez said.

Clark doubled down on the misinformation about Social Security benefits going to unauthorized border crossers. “Every illegal that's coming across the border gets Social Security. So how do we continue to give them Social Security benefits in this country and not to the American people?” Clark told the crowd.

This is not true. According to PolitiFact, people who are undocumented or seeking asylum are ineligible to receive Social Security benefits. Generally, federal law requires that a person be a U.S. citizen or a permanent legal resident to receive the benefits. The same goes for SNAP food stamps or HUD Housing.

The candidates were also in harmony on what happened during the Uvalde massacre that killed 19 students and two teachers. All said the problem isn’t the ease of access of high-powered guns — including Lopez, who said, “This nation has done everything it can to push God out to the periphery, driven them out of schools, driven out of our culture, out of our society. We need public schools. We need a revival in this land. We need to repent and come back to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Clark used a response common with supporter of the National Rifle Association. “We don't have a gun problem. We don't have a mass shooting problem. We have a mental health problem, and that's what needs to be addressed,” she said.

Herrera dismissed that mass shootings are a uniquely American problem and blamed the problem on absent fathers. “It's not something that can be solved by the government. This is something that starts in the family, which I believe is the best form of government, is the family. Because if you look at these individuals, they come from a history of broken homes,” Herrera said.

Avila admitted that the four Republican challengers were in lockstep on gun access despite the dangers that it brings to public spaces including schools. “I think you guys get the picture here that everyone up here is a big defender of the Second Amendment. We're never going to vote the way this empty chair voted. We're going to protect the Second Amendment,” he said.

While Gonzales’ chair was empty on the debate stage, he’s been busy campaigning on social media and appearing in-person at events across the district. If he manages to earn more than 50% of the vote on March 5 primary day, he will avoid a run-off. But if he drops below 50%, Gonzales will be forced into a one-on-one ballot showdown with one of these four challengers.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi