It was the perennial razor-close high-dollar swing district all last decade. Will Hurd won it three times, but never reached 50% in any of the three elections. It moved a few points towards the GOP in 2020 when Tony Gonzales won it, and redistricting made it a bit redder still, but it remains the closest Republican-held seat and may never fade as a perennial battleground. But that may depend on this year, when Gonzalez will have an easier time of it at least financially. I don’t know yet what I expect from that race.
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.
[Democratic candidate John] 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.
“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.”
Most of the rest of the story is about Gonzales’ votes in favor of the Cornyn gun control bill and the House bill to protect same-sex marriage, both of which has drawn him some criticism and two censure votes from aggrieved county GOPs (a third, in Bexar County, failed to pass). Good for him and all, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here for the numbers.
For what it’s worth, Trump carried CD23 by seven points in 2020. The next two closest districts are both Dem-held (CD15, Trump +3; CD28, Biden +7), and after that it’s all double digits, with CDs 24 (Trump +12), 03 (Trump +14), 22 (Trump +16), 26 (Trump +18), and 38 (Trump +18) next in line. The main difference between CD23 and these other districts is that the latter all moved strongly towards Dems since 2012, with Mitt Romney carrying them by 38 to 44 points. It would not shock me if Beto does about as well in CDs 03 and 24 as he does in CD23. I don’t think Gonzales is going to achieve his goal of taking CD23 off the table, but I could easily see him winning by 10-12 points and discouraging any serious competition in the near term future. I could also see him winning by about the seven points that Trump won it by and remaining in the same position. He has some big advantages, but this is officially a Very Weird Year, and I’m not making any predictions about it. Long term I think this district remains on the radar, but maybe not at the front of the pack. We’ll see.