After backlash among his supporters and colleagues, Rep. Tony Gonzalez (TX-23) is feeling the heat more than ever in his race for reelection.
After the massacre in Uvalde, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, and voters taking note of Gonzalez’s A+ rating from the National Rifle Association, Democratic candidate John Lira said the path to victory is clear.
Lira told the Signal he feels the momentum increasing even further after an endorsement from gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and a consistent wave of support from his community and beyond.
Notably, Texas Tribune primary political correspondent Patrick Svitek named Gonzalez one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for Congress after Independent candidate Francisco Lopez Jr. entered the race over the summer, and polls showed a drop in GOP support.
“It’s not for the weak of heart or the weak of mind; you have to go to the bluest of blue counties and the reddest of red counties; the only real advantage he [Gonzalez] has now is a fundraising advantage,” Lira said.
“We’ve taken time these last 15 months we’ve been in this race to really make the relationships that we need across the district. The relationships mean everything,” he said.
After the massacre in May at Robb Elementary School, Lira said the city of Uvalde and the community at large had developed an anti-incumbent fervor. He also said Uvalde families have turned from victims to activists.
“The people of Uvalde, especially the victims, the families, and the community, continuously feel that they are being failed,” Lira said. “By their incumbents, by their local electeds, by Greg Abbott, Ted Cruz, in a lot of ways Tony Gonzalez, their mayor, and by their city council.”
The community has continuously asked the governor to call a special session to raise the minimum age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21. The governor has yet to respond.
“Some of the families are starting to reach out to me and the campaign directly and say, ‘how can we get involved with your campaign?’ They want 100 percent accountability,” he said. “They still have the feeling that Republicans are still trying to protect access to guns more than children, and that’s an ugly feeling for them.”
Lira said he wants to give residents and the community aspiration that flipping TX-23 from red to blue is possible.
In the 2020 general election, Gonzalez beat Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones by 4 points. Lira said the tragedy in Uvalde and Republican inaction could be the push to galvanize voters.
“It’s a very moderate district; this is a district historically known for flipping cycle to cycle,” Lira said. “Latinos that tend to be more Democratic in [Uvalde County] have not traditionally been engaged, but this time around with this incident, they are absolutely energized to vote, absolutely activated to vote this election. They can turn out historical numbers and decide the whole race of Texas 23.”
Moreover, Lira said it was disappointing to see Republicans, including Gonzalez, vote against the Burn Pits Act in March as a Marine veteran. After intense backlash, Gonzalez voted in support of the bill in July.
“All he did was delay it; all he did was tell our veterans that he’s willing to play a little bit of politics with their benefits, and that’s unsatisfactory to me,” Lira said. “When it comes to veterans, it doesn’t matter what policy process you reference. You have to stand up and take a stand.”
For context, the PACT Act is a bill that will expand health care coverage and benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service. The bill covers 23 conditions, including specific cancers, respiratory illnesses, and more.
President Biden has announced support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law when it reaches his desk.
“I know for a fact I was around burn pits in my 2005 deployment to Iraq right where I was stationed with my good buddy, who in 2020 fell and bumped his head and found out he had glioblastoma,” Lira said.
According to reports, glioblastoma is an aggressive, incurable brain cancer that has trended most recently in veterans. Biden himself has speculated his son Beau Biden who died in 2015 from glioblastoma, could’ve also been a victim of toxic fumes after serving in Iraq.
“These are particles that are so fine 15 years later; we’re starting to see a trend that they work themselves somehow into cancer,” Lira said. “Some of the trends that I personally have experienced and some of my post 9/11 veterans have experienced is shortness of breath, vertigo, you know these very rare types of cancer that doesn’t make sense but only for the military that was deployed.”
A number of other issues have emerged as critical for voters as Lira and his team continue door-knocking from home to home in the South Texas district, including inflation, affordability, and reproductive healthcare.
“There is some crossover support for reproductive freedom for disapproval of the Dobbs decision, and I’m saying this because I’m hearing it even from some very conservative women,” he said. “These more conservative women cannot help but to feel that a liberty and a freedom has been severed from them.”
Election day for this race is Nov. 8, 2022.