Another Example of the Role of Primaries

A potential GOP self-own in south Texas.

Via Politico: Inside the increasingly ugly GOP fight over a Texas runoff.

Rep. Tony Gonzales’ centrist voting record and willingness to excoriate his colleagues have earned him a fair share of GOP enemies. Party leaders are still dreading what happens if he loses a runoff this month.

The West Texan is battling for his political life after being forced into a primary runoff with a gun-rights YouTube star backed by members like Rep. Matt Gaetz(R-Fla.) and House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.). Brandon Herrera, known as “The AK Guy” after his affection for assault rifles, would likely align with rabble-rousers who have repeatedly challenged GOP leadership.

If Gonzales loses the runoff at the end of the month, Republican leaders would face two worse alternatives. They either risk losing the seat entirely thanks to an unpalatable Republican nominee — who has mocked the Holocaustveterans’ suicides and Barron Trump — or they hold it but welcome into their ranks someone who is likely to further inflame internal caucus divisions.

From a purely partisan point of view, the party clearly needs the seat, even if the fringe of the party grows. Its current margin is as small as it gets and a number of court redistricting battles have gone the Democrats’ way (for example, they are likely to pick up a seat in Alabama, just to name one state and there are several others).

While some may wish to argue that the GOP is just fringe all the way down, I would note that without even getting into that, Gonzalez is the strategically better choice for the party to retain the seat. While post-redistricting the district became slightly more Republican, it is still competitive enough that a fringe Republican could lose the seat. This is Will Hurd’s old district, which was often quite competitive in the past. Gonzalez did quite well in 2020 and especially in 2022 (post redistricting).

Gonzales stunned many in his own party when he captured a sprawling rural Texas district in 2020 that many believed would be lost. But his votes in support of gun control and same-sex marriage earned him a host of enemies and a censure from the Texas GOP. And he’s not winning any popularity contests in Washington, either, after repeated public criticism of his colleagues.

Meanwhile, even lawmakers who don’t have a personal problem with Gonzales question why he’s held on to his centrist persona as his district grew redder during 2021 redistricting.

The smart play would be to build on his incumbency advantage and his clear ability to win the district. But those advantages would likely erode, and maybe even disappear if Herrera is nominated. At a minimum, his nomination would change Democratic priorities for the district.

Democrats would face a tall task in flipping the seat — Gonzales won by 17 points in 2022 — and it is not currently on their target list. The Democratic nominee, Santos Limon, is a civil engineer and small business owner with lackluster fundraising; he reported raising less than $100,000 as of mid-February. But, privately, some Democratic strategists agree a Herrera nomination would present a unique opportunity.

This is a clear example of where the primary electorate is significantly out of line with the overall district and so the primary process itself leads to a poor strategic choice by the party (as a collective actor).

Another way that primaries shape behavior is that even though Gonzalez voted in favor of the January 6 commission, he recently endorsed Trump. This is clearly a move related to his primary challenge. Gonzalez is lucky that his opponent has made fun of Barron Trump, which may have forestalled a Trump endorsement.

Side note: Brandon “The AK Guy” Herrera would be running in a district that includes Uvalde, TX if he won the nomination.

The run-off will take place on May 28th.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    Gonzalez is lucky that his opponent has made fun of Barron Trump, which may have forestalled a Trump endorsement.

    I can’t help but think that if he insulted Eric, Trump’s reaction would be “good one.”

    Anyway, Trump often doesn’t endorse until he has polling data that shows he’s endorsing a winner. Because Trump doesn’t endorse losers.

    ReplyReply
    4
  2. MarkedMan says:

    This is a clear example of where the primary electorate is significantly out of line with the overall district

    I’m sure you are correct that this could be a safe Republican seat up for grabs. But it’s also worth noting that the most active and committed voters in the party, the ones most likely to vote in the general, are selecting the candidate they want most to represent them.

    ReplyReply
  3. @MarkedMan: I think it is important to understand that most Republican voters in the general election want a Republican. They don’t care, or even fully understand, the difference between Gonzales and Herrera. All that matters is the “R” by their name.

    ReplyReply
    3
  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: My comment was about the primary. The voters that care the most participate in the primary and since they are a fraction of the number who will vote in the general their votes are effectively worth more. They are the ones who get to decide on the candidates. In solidly red (or solidly blue) areas the general means nothing and everything is decided in the primary.

    I agree with you that I think the major parties have gone too far in selecting their candidates solely by popular vote in a primary. But there are others who think that is the best way, and smoke filled rooms should be avoided at all costs. The latter won and the power of the party leadership has been greatly diminished, so it is simply a fact that the most involved and committed voters themselves bear the responsibility for who is chosen. It is they who decide what the values of the party are.

    ReplyReply
  5. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    it is simply a fact that the most involved and committed voters themselves bear the responsibility for who is chosen

    Yes, but it is also a fact that who those involved and committed primary voters are can be manipulated. The role of media campaigns, both overt and covert, is a nontrivial factor in which voters feel energized enough to get out and vote in a primary.

    ReplyReply
  6. MarkedMan says:

    @DrDaveT: Sure, political campaigns advertise and pull stunts to get attention. Was it ever different?

    I guess I’m not sure where this discussion is going. I put in my response because I felt Steven had perhaps unintentionally implied that the fact that the candidate will be chosen by primary voters renders it somehow “lesser”. I was only pointing out that the GOP (and now the Dems) largely select their candidates via primary, and some people think that is a great thing. Dr Taylor and I don’t think that, but there are many that do. In any case, in most systems participants who are most engaged have an outsized effect on who is chosen as their candidate. In this case, if the primary voters select the loon, that will be because they feel the loon best represents their values and not because of some trickery foisted on them.

    ReplyReply
  7. @MarkedMan: Apologies–I misread your initial comment.

    ReplyReply
  8. TheRyGuy says:

    If you lose a primary election to a kook, the problem isn’t the primary voters or the kook. The problem is YOU. If Gonzales doesn’t understand and serve his constituents well enough to defeat a challenge from “The AK Guy,” the only person at fault is Gonzales.

    ReplyReply
  9. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Sure, political campaigns advertise and pull stunts to get attention. Was it ever different?

    That’s not what I meant. Russian-funded disinformation campaigns are a rather different kettle of fish. Post-Citizens United media campaigns are qualitatively different, as well.

    ReplyReply

Speak Your Mind

*