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Always a battleground, never a landslide: Texas’ 23rd Congressional District stays competitive despite state’s political shifts

Even as Democrats expand their congressional offensive elsewhere in the state, the West Texas district remains a perennial battleground.
Republican Tony Gonzalez and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones are vying for the 23rd Congressional...
Republican Tony Gonzalez and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones are vying for the 23rd Congressional District seat to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes. The seat has remained a perennial battleground even as the state’s political winds shift.(Tony Gonzales For Congress/Gina Ortiz Jones Congress)
Published: Oct. 29, 2020 at 12:08 PM CDT
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TEXAS TRIBUNE - The Texas congressional battlefield has grown dramatically this election cycle, but one thing has not really changed: The 23rd District remains an all-out brawl until the end.

With less than a week until the election, the sprawling 23rd District along the Texas-Mexico border is holding true to its perennial reputation as a hypercompetitive district in November. It’s a reputation that had seemed to fade as Democrats expanded their Texas offensive elsewhere; expressed surefire confidence that the seat was theirs with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes; and watched as Republicans suffered a seemingly never-ending nominating process.

No one is claiming the contest between Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones and Republican Tony Gonzales will not be close, but the mood around the race has evolved.

“At the beginning of the cycle, in a Republican open seat in a district that Hillary Clinton carried, [it] looked like it would top the Democratic takeover target list,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “But as the cycle has evolved, I think it’s clear this district is set to host yet another close race. That’s what this district does — it has close races.”

Inside Elections recently shifted its rating of the race in Republicans' favor, from “Lean Democratic” to “Tilt Democratic” — a rare development as Texas' battlefield has mostly trended Democratic throughout the cycle. Jones' campaign fundraised off the ratings change Wednesday, emailing supporters that the 23rd is the “MOST competitive district in the entire country” and warning that “as each day passes, this race is only getting closer.”

Both sides say TV ad spending has been consistent with a dogfight to the finish. Rather than retrench as Democrats try to force Republicans on defense elsewhere in Texas, the National Republican Congressional Committee has only expanded its buy in the 23rd District, disclosing another $1.5 million Tuesday.

Seeking to rebut those who considered the race a “foregone conclusion,” NRCC executive director Parker Poling said in a tweet Monday that Democrats have poured close to $6.5 million into the district and “no one should be surprised by data showing this to be an extremely competitive race.”

“Obviously things have changed considerably,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Gonzales campaign spokesperson. “I think in May, June, [Democrats] did think this race would be over by now, and it’s clearly not. … At this point I really believe we’re gonna win, and I don’t think there were a lot of people that believed that midway through the year.”

To be sure, Jones is not discounting the district’s stubbornly competitive streak — or the potential for an uncertain homestretch. Packed with Latino voters and rural Texans, the district is notoriously hard to poll, and multiple surveys that came out in the fall of 2018 were way off, including a GOP poll that found Hurd up by a preposterous 25 points. In a show of confidence in Hurd, the NRCC canceled its media reservations in the district in early October that year.

Jones ended up losing by just 926 votes.

“Anybody that has watched this race knows it’s always competitive,” Jones said in an interview Tuesday. “Anybody that knows this district knows that it was drawn to be competitive.”

The 23rd District is one of 10 GOP-held districts that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has designated as pick-up opportunities next week in Texas, but it is not like most of the others.

For starters, it was the only Texas congressional district actually drawn to be competitive at the start of the decade. But it also is less suburban, less educated and less wealthy than most of the other DCCC-targeted districts in Texas — and in turn, both sides say President Donald Trump’s underperformance in the district is not as dramatic.

Gonzales said the district is a “good example of how rural areas, particularly rural, heavily Hispanic areas, have not moved toward Democrats as quickly as the suburbs.”

Still, Democrats have had all the advantages in the race. Jones made clear within two months after the 2018 contest that she would probably run again. She handily won a five-way primary outright and built a massive financial advantage while Republicans fought among themselves. By contrast, Gonzales had to go through a nine-way primary, a nasty primary runoff that was postponed from May to July due to the coronavirus pandemic and then weeks of uncertainty over his nominee status after his runoff opponent sought a recount.

It’s not that Democrats never expected the contest to be hard fought. But throughout the election cycle, they exuded optimism that the district was the most primed to flip here.

This summer, while introducing Jones at an event, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio said, “If we win no other races, I’m sure we’re gonna win that one.” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last fall that she had “no doubt” Jones would win, and the DCCC chair, Cheri Bustos, was similarly unequivocal around the same time.

“I will make a prediction that we will win the seat,” Bustos told reporters that September. “We’re gonna win this. I feel very good about that district.”

Jones maintains considerable advantages as the finish line nears. On the latest campaign finance reports, covering the first two weeks of October, she easily outraised Gonzales, overwhelmingly outspent him and ended the period with more than three times the cash on hand that he had.

While Republicans have tried a litany of attacks on Jones, she has been unrelenting in more singularly highlighting Gonzales' support for “eliminating” the Affordable Care Act and with it, the law’s protection for people with preexisting health conditions. In the interview, she repeatedly came back to the topic, even in response to seemingly unrelated questions, saying “health care is on the ballot,” especially during the pandemic.

Gonzales insists he supports protecting people with preexisting conditions — he frequently notes he has one himself — but he has neither backed away from his Obamacare opposition nor provided an alternative plan.

Gonzales, meanwhile, has been intent on portraying Jones as a district outsider with a liberal agenda. He has falsely claimed she “lives in D.C.” — Jones owns an apartment there, but she has resided in her mother’s house in San Antonio since moving home to first run for the seat three years ago.

Still, despite ample fact-checking, Gonzales has stuck with the claim. Asked if she was worried it was burning in with voters, Jones said she hears more from those outraged by it.

“Frankly, what people come up to me [to say] is, ‘I can’t believe Tony Gonzales is lying on TV,’” said Jones, who moved early on in her TV advertising to emphasize her San Antonio roots.

In the closing months of the race, Republicans zeroed in on a more incendiary line of attack, saying Jones supports taxpayer money going toward gender-reassignment surgery. That is based on Jones' 2018 criticism of Hurd for voting for a bill amendment that would have blocked the U.S. military from paying for transition-related care.

On Tuesday, the NRCC deployed its most full-throated use of the attack yet, launching a TV ad exclusively on the topic that says Jones “would use our tax dollars to radicalize America.”

Jones' supporters say the line of attack is transphobic.

“It is despicable that Republicans would attack a military veteran simply because she believes the trans soldiers who risked their lives beside her deserve fair treatment when they return home,” Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor who heads the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said in a statement.

It was not the first time LGBTQ issues haves come up in the race. In August, after an uproar, the NRCC deleted a reference to Jones' “female partner” on a site it uses to telegraph candidate attacks to allied groups.

At the core of the race is the question of whether a Republican not named Will Hurd — who endorsed Gonzales early in the primary — could hold the district. While Gonzales cuts a less moderate profile than Hurd, the candidate’s supporters believe he has made serious progress toward answering the question.

“I think [Hurd] could’ve held on to it if he would’ve wanted to, but I think Tony’s a good choice,” said Crane County Sheriff Andrew Aguilar. “I think Tony can step right in and fill those shoes.”