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Tony Gonzales
Rep. Tony Gonzales speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill. Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Uvalde Casts a Dark Shadow Over This Gun-Obsessed Election

After the Uvalde shooting, Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas voted for the most significant gun bill in the last 30 years. Now it might cost him his seat in Congress — or it might save him.

As Republican voters in West Texas head to the polls for a runoff election next Tuesday, many will get a call from an unknown number and hear a familiar voice.

“Hey there, this is Matthew McConaughey,” the voice on the other end of the line says, in the actor’s unmistakable Texas drawl, according to audio obtained by NOTUS.

The robocall, which McConaughey recently recorded, then encourages voters to choose Rep. Tony Gonzales in the runoff.

“Look, Tony is a true Texan. He served 20 years in the Navy. He shows up in the good times, but he also shows up in the bad times,” McConaughey says. “When it comes to serving in Congress, Tony Gonzales is there for the right reasons. He fights for, and he delivers for, all Texans.”

McConaughey was the latest big name to get involved in the increasingly bitter Republican runoff taking place on Tuesday between Gonzales and self-described “gunfluencer” Brandon Herrera. And the A-list actor could play a decisive role in the election; among McConaughey’s long list of credits, his most important one for this congressional primary election may be this: He is a native son of Uvalde, Texas.

Friday marks the second anniversary of the Uvalde school shooting, which left 22 dead and 21 injured. At its core, the race between Gonzales and Herrera is about guns. Specifically, it’s about Gonzales’ support for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which included tighter background checks for individuals under 21 and closed the “boyfriend loophole,” cracking down on the ability of domestic abusers to own a firearm.

In the wake of Uvalde — less than a month after the shooting, actually — Gonzales bucked his party and was the sole Texas Republican in the House to vote for the bill. The legislation was ultimately signed into law, becoming the most significant gun measure in over 30 years.

“As the congressman who represents Uvalde, I am focused on delivering real change,” Gonzales said in an op-ed shortly after he supported the bill. “That change starts with addressing the serious lack of mental health resources in our country, while passing laws that don’t infringe on Americans’ Second Amendment rights.”

Herrera clearly disagrees.

As Herrera runs for a congressional seat that encompasses Uvalde, he has made it a point to showcase his experience with guns and contrast his support for gun freedoms with Gonzales. Herrera has practically made guns part of his identity. His X handle is “TheAKGuy,” and he has become popular online by talking about firearms and even selling reassembled military-grade weapons.

In the past month, Herrera has even held a rally with Kyle Rittenhouse, the controversial gun activist best known for shooting and killing two men at a Wisconsin protest in 2020 and then being acquitted in court.

Beyond a central part of his personality, Herrera has made the Second Amendment, and Gonzales’ vote for that bipartisan gun legislation, a central part of his campaign. He has taken the act of bashing Gonzales to an art form.

“It was called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which is a misnomer in a lot of ways,” Herrera said in an interview with KSAT, a San Antonio local affiliate. “For one, it was not going to make communities safer, but in the other way, it wasn’t bipartisan. It was not a joint Republican and Democrat effort. It was a Democrat effort that had a handful of turncoat Republicans that voted for it. And Tony was one of them.”

Unfortunately for Herrera, he’s fighting an uphill battle. In the March 5 primary, Gonzales received 45% of the vote to Herrera’s 25%. While the race has likely tightened, Uvalde and the dark second anniversary of the shooting are looming large over the contest.

Both men seem to be leaning into gun issues to make their case to the voters — just in very different ways.

Gonzales argues he’s independent-minded, as evidenced by that vote for the bipartisan gun legislation, and he’s tried to sell his constituents on the fact that the bill was actually a step in the right direction.

“To me, it was very simple,” Gonzales said of his vote to the Austin American-Statesman, “‘Would this legislation have prevented the Uvalde shootings?’ The answer is ‘yes.’”

Tony Gonzales
Rep. Tony Gonzales speaks at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol. Andrew Harnik/AP

Meanwhile, Herrera has taken a very different approach.

In December, the San Antonio Police Department Bomb Squad was called to a gun store in Uvalde, the same one where the Uvalde shooter actually purchased one of his guns.

There appeared to be an explosive device left on a table in the gun store, and workers there were concerned. It turned out to be a dummy shell — left by Herrera, who said he regretted any confusion it caused.

While Herrera loves to talk about guns and Second Amendment rights, he has also mostly avoided talking about Uvalde in advance of the second anniversary. Instead, he’s advertised the chance to shoot an AK-50 if you donate to his campaign.

Still, this race could go either way.

“Keep in mind, you know, this is a Republican primary runoff. This is going to be the most extreme and most committed conservative voters,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, told NOTUS. “They are unhappy largely with the gun control bill and any bill that disrupts what they think of as the proper role for gun rights in this country.”

Josh Blank, the research director at the Texas Politics Project, told NOTUS that Gonzales’ vote displayed “the fundamental dynamic of Texas politics at the moment.”

“Republican incumbents, who take difficult votes — whether in the face of tragedy or because they think it’s the best out of their district — create the conditions for primary challengers,” Blank said.

He noted that it would be a different constituency showing up on Tuesday to vote in the GOP primary runoff than it was who showed up in March, and that could benefit Herrera.

In a low-turnout race, voters are usually more motivated by single issues. “One of those issues that is a primary constituency in the Republican Party is gun rights advocacy,” Blank said.

Whether Uvalde is also one of those issues remains to be seen.

Ryan Hernández is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.