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GOP Rep. Tony Gonzales fights for his political life in Texas against a newcomer

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today, Texas is holding Republican primaries for seven congressional districts, and they illustrate the great divide in the state's GOP. In one race along the Texas-Mexico border, incumbent Tony Gonzales faces Brandon Herrera, a YouTube personality known as the AK Guy. Yeah. Herrera has posted videos in which he tests guns used in the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and others, and by Nazi soldiers during World War II. Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies reports.

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES, BYLINE: Last week at the Thirsty Horse Dance Hall and Saloon in San Antonio, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz took to the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT GAETZ: It's great to be back in Texas.

DAVIES: The brash right-wing political disrupter told the crowd he's in the Lone Star State because there's a civil war in the Republican Party.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAETZ: There are a lot of folks who want to go back to the days of the Romneys and the Bushes and (CROSSTALK)...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Booing).

GAETZ: ...But you don't want that, OK? This is Donald Trump's party.

DAVIES: Gaetz was here campaigning for Brandon Herrera, the AK Guy, as in the AK47 assault-style rifle. He is a firearms manufacturer and has more than 3 million YouTube subscribers for his gun videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

BRANDON HERRERA: Shotguns - since the beginning of our country, Americans have been obsessed with them.

DAVIES: At a recent campaign stop, Herrera called Gonzalez a sellout who's spending more time fundraising than meeting face-to-face with Texas voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HERRERA: So he's constantly begging for more money, constantly getting more third-party involvement in the race. And it's just not helping him.

DAVIES: The sprawling Texas 23rd district covers a majority of the Texas-Mexico border and includes the town of Uvalde, where two years ago, 21 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, Representative 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY GONZLAES: Anybody who wishes to challenge me, it's a fool's errand. I'll run you to the deep end of the pool every single time and drown you. So I welcome it.

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

JON TAYLOR: He's in trouble.

DAVIES: Jon Taylor is the chair of the political science department at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

TAYLOR: I think he's in trouble simply because there's a perception that he's somehow weak on the border. Somehow he's a weak Republican. You know, they're claiming - calling him a RINO.

DAVIES: Taylor says that's another reason why Republican hardliners such as Gaetz are so willing to support Herrera.

TAYLOR: 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.

DAVIES: Meantime, House speaker Mike Johnson, who has cautioned House Republicans not to campaign against each other, raised money here for the incumbent. Gonzales says the election is between someone who governs and someone who, quote, "says a bunch of crazy things to get clicks." And last month on CNN, Gonzales blasted the Florida congressman for backing his rival.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GONZLAES: 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're walking around with white hoods in the daytime.

DAVIES: Federal prosecutors declined to charge Gaetz after investigating allegations of sex trafficking. He still faces a House ethics probe. Gonzales has raised over $4 million, which he's 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.

For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Martin Davies
David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.