High-stakes Republican runoff in Texas attracts national attention

Tony Gonzales recently spent two years in Washington, working as a Department of Defense legislative fellow for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Now, the former Navy master chief petty officer is looking to return to the nation’s capital — as the congressman representing Texas’s 23rd congressional district.

Gonzales, who comes armed with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, is likely to win Tuesday’s runoff against another veteran, Raul Reyes. Gonzales came out on top in the March 3 primary, taking 28% of the vote to Reyes’ 23%. The winner will go up against Gina Ortiz Jones, who handily beat her opponents in the Democratic primary.

Jones narrowly lost her 2018 bid against Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), who announced last August that he would not be seeking a fourth term. This year, Jones is favored to win in the district that The Cook Political Report rates as “Lean Democratic.”

But Gonzales is up for the challenge, telling Jewish Insider that he can deliver a victory against Jones in November where Reyes cannot. “I have the experience of being on Capitol Hill, drafting legislation, staffing, hearings, doing constituent services,” he said. 

Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, agreed that Reyes would be unlikely to win in November.

“Whoever wins [the runoff]… will have a real uphill struggle against Gina Ortiz Jones,” Jones continued. “It’s going to be really tough for Gonzales to win that seat.”

But Gonzales is optimistic that voters in the district, which has flipped between Democratic and Republican control in recent years but was held by Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla for 14 years, will turn out for him in November. He pointed out that he’s a Hispanic candidate running in a majority-Hispanic district, an advantage over Jones.

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Should he win, Gonzales would bring to Congress a font of Middle East policy expertise. While in the military, he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. And while working for Rubio, he focused on defense, national security and intelligence issues, with a particular focus on the Middle East.

“I spent my entire adult life basically at war,” he said. “A big part of my message is taking care of veterans, on one hand. The other aspect of it is for America to be firm. I believe in peace through strength.”

In 2018, as a national security fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Gonzales visited Israel, which he said helped shape his view of the region and understanding of the geopolitical situation.

“I read about the Golan Heights and studied it and I understood its strategic importance,” he said, explaining that seeing the situation on the ground allowed him to realize that the area was more than a military interest. “But when you visit it, the part that is left out is there’s this amazing winery just miles from the Golan Heights. So in my eyes, yeah, of course Israel would never give up that area.”

Julia Schulman, senior director of special projects at FDD, told JI, “Gina and Tony are both members of FDD’s non-partisan national security alumni network. Both are dedicated public servants who were actively engaged in our programming. Both have exciting careers ahead and we look forward to seeing how they continue to serve our country.”

Gonzales said he does not believe the U.S. should dictate any specific peace plan for the region, nor should it dictate whether Israel should be allowed to unilaterally annex portions of the West Bank.

“The Israelis and the Palestinians, I think, should lead the way,” he said. “I think [America’s] role is to bring those [actors] together and open up a dialogue, not necessarily dictate what that peace process should be like.”

He added, however, “my experience in the military has taught me that you really can’t have peace unless you have partners that are willing to have that discussion. So I think it starts there.”

Although Gonzales believes that peace negotiations also are the best way to resolve the U.S. conflict with Iran, he did not support the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with the regime.

“I’d love nothing more than Iran to come to the negotiating table and have a dialogue and a discussion. That’s, I believe, how we solve a long-term solution,” he said. “In the meantime, though, that region of the world views strength through power.”

In this sense, Gonzales said, the Trump administration’s tougher posture toward Iran, including the strike which killed Gen. Qassem Solemaini, has been a net positive.

Gonzales — who was a Navy cryptologist — said Iran, as well as Russia and China, pose major cyber threats to the U.S., including U.S. elections.

“Our greatest [external] adversaries are China, Russia and Iran,” he said. “The number one thing is having the dialogue and saying, ‘Yes, China is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Russia is trying to impact our elections. Yes, Iran and others are trying to impact our elections.’ Why? Because they’re our adversaries. They’re trying to undermine us. And I think just being able to say that is already a win that we don’t have on Capitol Hill.”

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What was anticipated to be a fairly quiet runoff in southwestern Texas between two military veterans has become the site of a high-stakes clash between major players in the national GOP. 

Gonzales has the support of Trump, Hurd and other GOP leaders, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) broke with the party to support Reyes, boosting him with a massive ad campaign that raised eyebrows at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

And on the eve of the primary, Trump’s campaign sent a strongly worded letter to Reyes’s campaign, admonishing him for using the president’s name and image on a mailer. 

“President Trump and his campaign do not support your candidacy in TX-23’s July 14 runoff primary,” Trump campaign executive director Michael Glassner said in the letter, which was first reported by Politico. “Your campaign’s efforts to make voters believe otherwise are deceptive and unfair.”

Reyes’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Jones said Trump’s endorsement helped shore up Gonzales’ campaign by shielding him from Reyes’s claims that he’s too much of an establishment Republican.

“I think Gonzales is going to [win that runoff] pretty easily,” Jones told JI.

But if he doesn’t, Jones predicts the race will drop off the radar of the GOP. “If Reyes wins, I would expect national Republicans to pull the plug on [TX]23,” Jones told JI. “If Reyes wins, [the district] will cease to be a real priority.”

Eyeing the races in Texas’s much-anticipated primary runoffs

There are a number of intriguing races to watch in Texas’s primary runoffs today. Patrick Svitek, a political correspondent for the Texas Tribune, ran through some of the most noteworthy matchups in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. Here’s what he’s keeping an eye on as votes are tallied today:

Senate runoff: At the top of the ticket is the Democratic primary runoff for the United States Senate. M.J. Hegar, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, is going up against Royce West, a veteran state politician who has served in the Texas Senate for close to three decades. Though West has trailed Hegar in the polls, he has slightly closed the gap in recent weeks as mass protests against police brutality have swept the nation. But West, who is African American, isn’t exactly an upstart progressive along the lines of Charles Booker, who came close to defeating Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s recent Senate primary race.

“I don’t think it’s an explicit moderate-versus-progressive matchup,” Svitek said of the West-Hegar contest. “And I think it may be tempting for folks from outside the state to kind of put it through that lens.” Svitek believes that Hegar — who is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has outraised her opponent — is the ultimate favorite in the race. Whether she will be able to defeat Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in November, however, is another story. Hegar is still something of a long shot, according to Svitek, but Trump’s sagging poll numbers may bode well for her. “I think she’s increasingly coming on the radar because of how close the presidential race is looking in the state,” Svitek said. 

TX-13: In Texas’s 13th congressional district, Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor, is going up against Josh Winegarner, a cattle industry lobbyist, in the open-seat race to replace outgoing Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX). Svitek described the race as the “most contentious” in the state. Jackson, who has been endorsed by the president, has accused his opponent of being anti-Trump, while Winegarner has attacked Jackson for only recently moving to the district. As of a week ago, Svitek said, it looked as if Jackson had the edge, but more recently, the race has tightened. “That’s one to watch, for sure,” he told JI. 

TX-10: In 2018, Mike Siegel, a progressive Democrat, came within just four percentage points of beating Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX) in the state’s 10th congressional district, a historically conservative swath between Austin and Houston. He is trying again this cycle, but first, Siegel will have to defeat Pritesh Gandhi, a well-known doctor in the district. “Gandhi is not as progressive as Siegel,” Svitek said, “but has run a pretty strong race, been the top fundraiser, brings a really interesting story as a physician here in Austin for a community health clinic, and he’s obviously benefited from being in the spotlight on the frontlines of the coronavirus.”

Still, Svitek added, Siegel has built-in name recognition from his last attempt at the seat, which may give him an advantage in the runoff. Regardless of who wins, it will be a competitive race in the general election in a district that has been trending purple in recent years. “The challenge with McCaul is that he has been able to prepare for this race since January 2019,” said Siegel, adding, “He’s also incredibly independently wealthy, and while he has been fine fundraising on his own so far, he could write himself a $5 million check tomorrow and kind of take this race off the grid.”

TX-17: Former Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost to a Democrat in 2018 in the state’s 32nd district, is trying to make his way back to the House in the open-seat contest to replace retiring Rep. Bill Flores in Texas’s 17th congressional district, which includes the city of Waco. But Sessions may have some trouble regaining entry given that Flores has endorsed the other candidate in the race local businesswoman Renee Swan. 

“It’s been a unique race in that the outgoing incumbent, I think, has really played an outsized role in trying to shape the field and the battle lines,” said Svitek. “He wanted someone with stronger roots in the district than some guy who just represented Dallas for a long time.” Svitek told JI that Sessions may be the slight favorite in the district given his name recognition. “But I think it’s going to be a close race, regardless.”

TX-24: Two Democrats are running in a competitive district for the chance to succeed Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-TX), who is retiring at the end of his term. Kim Olson, a former military pilot, is something of a “mini-celebrity” in the state thanks to her run for Texas agricultural commissioner two years ago, said Svitek. “It looked like she was going to be the candidate to beat in this current race,” he said. Candace Valenzuela, a young progressive candidate of color, got into the race a little later than Olson and had a pretty slow fundraising start. 

But then Valenzuela picked up the endorsement of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Emily’s List, as well as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Although Olson has been the top fundraiser in the race, Svitek said, Valenzuela has caught up with her and surpassed her in the most recent period. “Valenzuela has really built considerable momentum in this runoff,” he told JI.

TX-22: Two far-right candidates — Kathaleen Wall and Troy Nehls — are vying to succeed Republican Rep. Pete Olson, who isn’t seeking re-election, in this district in the Houston suburbs. Wall, a wealthy Repulican donor, is almost exclusively self-funding her campaign, Svitek pointed out. Nehls, a sheriff in Fort Bend County — which Svitek said contributes to about 70% of the vote in the district — has struggled to raise money, but has a solid base of support. “He just seems to cultivate loyalty among his followers,” Svitek told JI.

Wall, for her part, lost her bid for Congress last cycle in a separate district in Texas. “It was kind of an embarrassing loss for her,” Svitek said. And Nehls has some “vulnerabilities in his law enforcement background” that may put him at risk in the general election. Whoever emerges victorious will face stiff competition from Sri Kulkarni, the Democratic opponent who won his primary outright and lost to Olson by less than 5 percentage points last cycle. “If you look at the competitive districts in Texas, on paper, that one is maybe middle of the pack, but I think because of the current dynamic there, where you have a really strong candidate who’s already won his primary in Kulkarni, and you have this very messy runoff between these two candidates with unique flaws, I think that that district has kind of moved up the ranking.”

An Air Force vet and a state senator face off in a Texas primary runoff for the Senate

In the Texas primary runoff scheduled for July 14, two Democrats — M.J. Hegar, a white, female veteran of the United States Air Force, and Royce West, an African-American state politician — are competing for the chance to go up against Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the powerful Republican incumbent who has held onto his seat for nearly two decades.

If that sort of matchup sounds familiar, it’s likely because it is reminiscent of Kentucky’s recent Democratic primary battle in which Amy McGrath, a white former Marine fighter pilot, narrowly defeated Charles Booker, a Black state representative who benefitted from a late-stage surge in popularity thanks in part to mass protests against systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

The same dynamic has altered the political landscape in Texas, as the demonstrations “have turned what would have otherwise been a pretty easy victory for Hegar into a competitive contest,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor in the department of political science at Rice University in Houston.

Still, heading into the runoff, West has struggled to harness the national mood to his benefit. The most recent polling on the race, released on Sunday and conducted by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, found that Hegar, at 32%, leads her opponent by a comfortable margin of 12 points among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.

Royce West

Those numbers may reflect the fact that West, the longtime 67-year-old state senator, isn’t exactly an up-and-coming progressive, despite a legislative record that includes efforts to reform the criminal justice system. “Royce West is an institutionalist,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He’s an insider and longtime member of the Texas Senate, so he is more of a moderate than a progressive among Black politicians and among Democrats.”

West seemed intent on maintaining that impression in a recent conversation with Jewish Insider. Though he supports the ongoing protests, advocating for a national standard around the use of deadly force, he also made sure to note that he has had positive interactions with the police. Shortly after he got his driver’s license, he said, an officer pulled him over for speeding and gave him a stern lesson on vehicular safety. “I never have forgotten it,” the longtime state senator recalled. 

Asked to name a political role model, West mentioned Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Texas-born president and senator. He cited Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, Master of the Senate, noting that he hadn’t read the whole book, which is more than 1,000 pages. “I’ve read a few pages of it, though.”

You don’t hear a lot about LBJ these days, but Jillson said that West’s comment makes some sense. “Royce, I think, is saying there that he’s a deal-maker,” Jillson told JI, “that he’s an insider and that he’s tried to understand what the person on the other side of the table needs in order to deliver a product, in order to deliver a compromise, a bargain.”

For her part, Hegar, 44, has sought to avoid any sort of conflict with West, even as the race has become increasingly acrimonious in recent weeks. Throughout her campaign, she has focused largely on Cornyn, with the implicit assumption being that she will be the one to face him in November.

Hegar is the candidate with the most out-of-state institutional support. She is backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as well as Emily’s List, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and J Street. 

Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient who completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan, ran for Congress in Texas’s 31st congressional district two years ago, attracting national attention with a viral ad. Hegar lost by less than 3 percentage points to Rep. John Carter (R-TX), but she believes she will fare better this time around. 

Though the pandemic has disrupted campaigning, Hegar — who has raised more than $6.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission — maintains that she has “planted the seeds for a grassroots movement,” having spent the first year of her Senate bid driving tens of thousands of miles around the state.

Hegar, a Purple Heart recipient, completed three tours in Afghanistan with the United States Air Force.

In an interview with JI last week, Hegar expressed concerns about “racial injustice,” but seemed more at ease discussing foreign policy. 

“So much is falling by the wayside as far as not grabbing headlines that I think is very concerning,” she said, noting that the U.S. was losing its influence abroad. “We’re losing a lot of that position with this America-first kind of isolationist platform, with gutting our State Department,” she said. “Those kinds of things are really damaging our ability to operate globally.”

Hegar is also critical of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. “I’m going to advocate for policies that come from national security experts and advance the long-term goal of peace without sacrificing safety,” said Hegar, who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I don’t believe his plan does that. I don’t think anyone’s surprised because the way he develops his plans seem to be through nepotism and what’s best for his party or speaking to his base instead of what’s best for the country and what’s best for our allies.”

Hegar added that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal was a mistake. “It wasn’t perfect,” she said. “I do think it was a practical step in the right direction. The president acting unilaterally to abandon it and escalate confrontation with Iran — which he’s shown a willingness to continue to do — has really put troops and our allies at risk and has led us down a path toward what would be a very costly and destabilizing war.”

“I think that we should be partnering with the international community,” Hegar told JI. “I know some people like to shoot from the hip and be a cowboy. And I don’t believe that we should be losing any of our autonomy — I do believe we’re the leaders of the free world — but I think that that mantle is delicate and fragile, and we will lose it if we don’t act as such. And we are not acting that way now.”

West, who has brought in nearly $1.8 million in donations, was more comfortable discussing police reform than foreign policy in his interview with JI. He supports a two-state solution as it was “outlined in the Clinton Paramaters [sic],” according to a position paper, and expressed a desire to visit Israel if he is elected to the Senate. “Israel is our strongest Democratic ally in the Middle East, and so America should be supportive of Israel,” he said.

But he hesitated when asked for his opinion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS. “Remind me of what the acronym stands for?” he asked. After he was reminded, he said he did not support the movement. 

West also appeared to support rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, but seemed somewhat hazy on what that would involve. “The fact is, I don’t know all the details of the plan, but any type of plan that we have can always be reviewed to improve upon,” he said. “So I would not be opposed to reviewing it to see whether we can improve upon it.”

Fluency on foreign policy matters, however, is unlikely to swing the runoff in either direction. But because West has struggled to leverage the national mood in his favor, experts predict that Hegar will likely advance to the general election in the fall.

Whether she can beat Cornyn remains to be seen. 

The senator will be tough to unseat, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “He’s got pole position — more money, better name identification and a veteran Texas campaign operation — he can define [Hegar] early and she might not have the money to respond unless she can raise Beto money,” Rottinghaus told JI, referring to former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who raised more than $80 million in his ultimately failed bid to oust Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

Still, Hegar maintained that she is ready for the fight. 

“The primary and the runoff feel a little bit like I’m in an aircraft flying to go pick up a wounded soldier or civilian,” Hegar told JI, “and we’re talking about the difference between having a disagreement with someone in the cockpit about tactics and how we’re going to roll in versus the guy on the ground pointing an RPG at me.”

Cornyn, she made clear, is the guy with the rocket launcher.