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GOP at war with itself in Texas primary runoff between Tony Gonzales and Brandon Herrera

Right-wing social media influencer Brandon Hererra (left) challenges Congressman Tony Gonzales in a GOP primary runoff in Texas' 23rd Congressional District that runs from San Antonio along the border to El Paso.
Right-wing social media influencer Brandon Hererra (left) challenges Congressman Tony Gonzales in a GOP primary runoff in Texas' 23rd Congressional District that runs from San Antonio along the border to El Paso.

On a hot afternoon at the Thirsty Horse Dance Hall and Saloon in San Antonio, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz took to the stage.

“It’s great to be back in Texas!”

The brash right wing political disruptor told the crowd he’s in the Lone Star State because there’s a “civil war” in the Republican Party.

“There are a lot of folks who want to go back to the days of the Romneys and the Bushes — but we don’t want that. This is Donald Trump’s Party. This is an America-first party!"

Gaetz was here campaigning for Brandon Herrera — an irreverent political newcomer who is challenging the incumbent, Tony Gonzales, for the Republican nomination for the 23rd district.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida campaigns for Brandon Herrera in San Antonio, Texas.
David Martin Davies
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida campaigns for Brandon Herrera in San Antonio.

Herrera is known online as "The AK GUY" — as in the AK-47 assault- style rifle. He is a firearms manufacturer and has more than 3 million YouTube subscribers for his channel on gun videos.

“Shotguns. Since the beginning of our country, Americans have been obsessed with them,” Herrera said.

At a recent campaign stop, Herrera called Gonzales a “sellout” who’s spending more time fundraising than meeting face-to-face with Texas voters.

“So he's constantly begging for more money, constantly getting more third-party involvement in the race, and it's just not helping him,” Herrera said.

The sprawling Texas 23rd District covers a majority of the Texas-Mexico border and includes the town of Uvalde, where two years ago 21 people were killed in a school shooting.

When Herrera was campaigning there, he caused a panic when he left behind an inactive explosive device in a park and the bomb squad was called to the scene.

After the Uvalde school shooting, Gonzales, who calls himself a pragmatic conservative, backed a bipartisan federal gun-reform bill. That earned him a censure from the Texas GOP which at the time he shrugged off.

“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 ya. So, I welcome it.”

But last March in the GOP primary Gonzales claimed only 45% of the votes and was pushed into the runoff.

“He's in trouble.” said Jon Taylor, the chair of the political science department at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“I think he's in trouble simply because there's a perception that he's somehow weak on the border," Taylor said. "Somehow he's a weak Republican — some are claiming, calling him a RINO (Republican in Name Only).” 

2024 Republican presidential nomination candidate and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Rep. Tony Gonzales tour the San Antonio Shoe Factory in Del Rio, Texas, U.S., April 3, 2023.
Kaylee Greenlee Beal
Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and Republican presidential candidate, and Rep. Tony Gonzales toured the San Antonio Shoe Factory in Del Rio in 2023.

Taylor said that’s another reason why Republican hardliners such as Gaetz are so willing to support Herrera. “It's another added bonus for Gaetz. If he somehow is able to get Herrera across the finish line, it means he can now send a message to other Republicans that he's going to come after them as well,” Taylor said.

In the meantime, House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has cautioned House Republicans not to campaign against each other, raised money here for the incumbent.

Gonzales said the election is between someone who governs and someone who “says a bunch of crazy things to get clicks.” 

Last month on CNN, Gonzales blasted the Florida congressman for backing his rival: “Matt Gaetz, he paid minors to have sex with him at drug parties. These people used to walk around with white hoods at night. Now they are walking around with white hoods in the daytime.”

Federal prosecutors declined to charge Gaetz after investigating allegations of sex trafficking. He still faces a House ethics probe.

Gonzales has raised more than $4 million, which he has used to plaster the airwaves with blistering ads. Herrera has raised just a quarter of that money. He calls Gonzales' ads “a smear campaign.” 

But with so few voters taking part in the primary runoff, the nomination typically goes to the candidate with the most ardent base, and Gaetz said guns were a main issue this runoff.

“Tony Gonzales has let gun owners down," Gaetz said. "He supported red flag laws. That's not something that's popular in this Republican primary electorate. And Brandon Herrera’s somebody who certainly is going to stand up for gun owners.”

Hererra has also campaigned with Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two men during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin.

For his part, Gonzales got a last-minute boost from actor Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey recorded robocalls for Gonzales, who he got to know after the Robb Elementary shooting, when Gonzales broke with his party to support federal gun control legislation.

That prompted the Texas GOP to censure Gonzales and opened the door to the primary challenge.

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