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How Uvalde’s GOP congressman is navigating a tense runoff and plotting to take out right-wing ‘anarchists’

<i>Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

By Manu Raju and Shania Shelton, CNN

(CNN) — Rep. Tony Gonzales called his GOP opponent in Texas a “neo-Nazi” and an “anarchist” intent on “burning the place down” — and said Republican hardliners seeking to oust him are a bunch of “scumbags” and MAGA wannabes.

In an interview with CNN, the two-term Texas GOP congressman said the outcome of Tuesday’s runoff against gun activist Brandon Herrera will send a clear message to Republicans amid a period of bitter intraparty infighting that has led to an ousted speaker, a stalled agenda and roiled relations across the House GOP Conference.

“Are we going to be the party that governs and gets things done in a conservative manner?” Gonzales said. “Or are we going to be the party that has jesters that come up here and say wild and crazy outrageous things and just try to burn the place down?”

Gonzales’ runoff underscores the intense GOP divide in the narrowly divided House, where hard-right members have grown more emboldened and willing to derail their party’s agenda if there’s a whiff of compromise with Democrats. And the fight is playing out in GOP primaries across the country, the outcome of which will have major ramifications for the direction of the House Republican Conference and the agenda it pursues in the next Congress. Gonzales’ race has become ground zero for that fight.

Gonzales, whose district includes Uvalde, which witnessed one of the worst school shootings in history two years ago, later voted for a bipartisan gun safety bill that has become a centerpiece of Herrera’s campaign against him. Gonzales said, “I don’t regret any of my votes.”

“Something has to change,” he said, noting his constituents were clamoring for action and that even his kids wear bulletproof backpacks to school. “It’s unfair.”

But it was that vote that has generated backlash on the right — on top of his handling of talks over a GOP immigration bill last year that grew tense and that some hardliners haven’t forgotten. And the insults Gonzales has leveled have only enraged his GOP critics.

“He is a RINO-establishment moderate who is about to be voted out of office by his constituents who are going to vote for Brandon Herrera,” said Rep. Bob Good, the leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, whom Gonzales referred to as one of the “scumbags” in Congress.

Gonzales said if he wins Tuesday, he plans to respond in kind by campaigning in the districts of Good and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, both of whom are backing Herrera and also led the charge to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership last fall. Gonzales said that after Tuesday he will seek to purge the party of mischief-making members.

“I plan to spend a lot of time in Pensacola,” Gonzales said, referring to the city in Gaetz’s Florida Panhandle. “I plan to spend a lot of time in Virginia and some of these other places. So I think my race is only the beginning, right? You can send everything you got at me. You’re never going to beat me, right? You’re just not.”

Herrera declined to be interviewed for this story.

Money pours into Texas race

Gonzales’ massive district — which spans the border with Mexico — has emerged as one of the most expensive House primaries in the country, with nearly $8 million spent on TV ads. His situation is part of a larger trend of House GOP members seeking to purge their own colleagues in their primaries, even though that has long been viewed as a serious breach of protocol.

“It’s never good to be shooting inside the tent,” said Gonzales, 43, a military veteran who has been in Congress since 2021.

So far, hard-right candidates have been unsuccessful in defeating their more moderate opponents this cycle. An effort to take out GOP Rep. Don Bacon in Nebraska failed earlier this month when he defeated his conservative challenger, Dan Frei, who was endorsed by Good. In Illinois, GOP Rep. Mike Bost won after Gaetz tried to prop up his challenger, a fight that prompted Speaker Mike Johnson to lobby former President Donald Trump to intervene on Bost’s behalf.

In South Carolina, members of the House Freedom Caucus are rallying around conservative state Rep. Adam Morgan, who is trying to knock off Rep. William Timmons in the June 11 primary. In Virginia, center-right Republicans and McCarthy are seeking some payback in helping Republican challenger John McGuire ahead of the June 18 primary against Good, one of eight Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy last fall.

Ahead of Tuesday’s race, Republican backers of Gonzales are optimistic, but low-turnout runoffs make such contests hard to handicap.

“It’s just going to add more to the dysfunction in the House,” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, referring to a potential Herrera victory. “I don’t see him being a productive member of Congress, and (he) will be an agent of chaos.”

Rep. Richard Hudson, the chairman of National Republican Congressional Committee, added: “I wish Republicans would focus on beating Democrats and growing the majority. You know, any time an incumbent is in a runoff primary we’re concerned, but I’m very confident Tony will prevail.”

GOP Rep. Max Miller of Ohio said he thinks it’s “disgusting” that Gaetz is targeting Gonzales.

“You have over 200 Republicans that need to work together every single day,” Miller said. “And if you’re in an environment where you have to work with somebody on legislation to move the country forward in a pragmatic and sensible way, and they’re literally trying to take you out to replace you because … you’re not hard-core enough. What the hell does that even mean anymore?”

Gonzales’ vote in 2022 for a gun safety law that was enacted in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting is in part to blame for GOP hardliners’ beef with him. Gonzales also tangled with his right flank as they were negotiating the House Republicans’ immigration proposal, even as he voted for the final product. And in 2022, the Texas Republican voted with a minority of his conference to codify same-sex marriage.

“Tony Gonzales called the tough border protections that we were looking for un-Christian; that’s not how voters feel in his district,” Gaetz said. Asked about Gonzales calling him a “scumbag,” Gaetz said: “So, you know, the personal insults against me, that’s not going to solve any problems for voters in Texas.”

Rep. Chip Roy, a fellow Texas Republican who sparred with Gonzales over border legislation, said he is staying neutral in the primary. Asked about Gonzales, Roy said: “He’s made some comments that I don’t think are particularly helpful.”

One of those comments — calling his detractors “scumbags” — was something that “really upset” GOP Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona, who endorsed Herrera and who described Gonzales’ comments as “garbage” that is “so beneath the conference.”

“You got the largely conservative House Freedom Caucus, going up against moderates in the conference,” Crane told CNN. “We’re outnumbered. … That’s why my voters sent me up here to try and change the way this town works. And I don’t think we’re going to change it with guys like Tony.”

Gonzales said he doesn’t take back his harsh words against some of his GOP colleagues.

“Not all of them are rewarding citizens, productive members of society here. And some of them are scumbags. I mentioned a couple of them. There’s probably a laundry list of folks,” Gonzales said, declining to name other names.

He added: “Some of these people that are running throughout the country, they’re not MAGA folks. … Bob Good, he’s not a MAGA guy that’s supporting my opponent, and some other people … they’re basically libertarians or anarchists or they just want to see the place burn down.”

‘I will never bow down to these people’

Gonzales was in El Paso when he received a text about the mass shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers. He drove to Uvalde that night after speaking with the sheriff there.

Two years later, Gonzales said he thinks a lot needs to change but argues there have been positive developments.

“What I’ve learned is this: You can do all the things that they want you to do, and it will never be enough. And I will never bow down to these people. I will always do what I think is right,” Gonzales said.

Herrera, a gun rights activist with a YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, has seized on Gonzales’ vote on the gun safety bill in his campaign to oust Gonzales in the runoff, arguing it’s an infringement of the Second Amendment.

But Gonzales said he was “getting calls from people nonstop” in the wake of the Uvalde massacre.

“The calls were, ‘Tony, you have to do something, but don’t take my guns away,’” he said.

Ultimately, what transpired was a compromise that fell short of restricting weapons and imposing universal background checks but authorized grants for states to bolster “red flag” laws; included money for school safety and mental health programs; expanded background checks for gun purchasers under 21; and toughened gun-trafficking penalties.

Gonzales said he “got a lot of flak” for his support.

“Crazy people should not have access to guns, period,” he said.

“Overall, people are angry and they’re angry for a reason,” Gonzales said of voters. “But are they going to be angry and then they want to see outrage by setting stuff on fire? Or are we going to help quell that anger by delivering results? That is what’s at stake, not only in this race, but … other races across the country.”

CNN’s Sheden Tesfaldet and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this story.

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