Tony Gonzales is missing. That was the unmistakable theme of the Republican primary debate for the Twenty-third Congressional District, a polity larger than North Carolina that spans much of southwest Texas, in early February. The two-term congressman’s absence at his own public flaying was referenced twice before the start of the main event, held in San Antonio’s Aggie Park by hosts who theatrically refused to say his name aloud. First, Bexar County GOP chair Jeff McManus, wearing the blue suit–red tie combination favored by Donald Trump, expressed his profound disappointment in the “one person missing.” Then, platinum-haired moderator Kimi-Lyn Reed worked her way across the stage introducing each candidate before teasing Gonzales with a loaded “and . . . ,” trailing off and devolving into laughter. The crowd followed in due course, shouting, “WHERE’S TONY?” 

The fifty or so in the audience were assembled to watch the four candidates who had shown up: retired Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Victor Avila, former Medina County GOP chair Julie Clark, gun-rights influencer Brandon Herrera, and live streaming sensation Frank “Border Patriot” Lopez Jr. At the center of the stage, in the middle of the four candidates, rested an unoccupied seat. Throughout the debate, while attacking Gonzales, the candidates often used “the Empty Chair” in lieu of his name.

That chair was more than a heavy-handed symbol of Gonzales’s absence; for those hoping to topple the incumbent, it represented his abandonment of the Republican Party that they seek to build in their image and that of the souped-up 2024 model of Trump. When McManus bemoaned in his opening remarks that Gonzales “has been missing many times, in many votes that have been taken on behalf of good constitutional conservatives,” he could have been referring to any number of the unpardonable sins that have driven a quartet of far-right contenders into the primary. Gonzales—ostensibly a MAGA Republican who won his first term in 2020 with Trump’s endorsement and, in turn, endorsed Trump going into the 2024 election—has committed the grave error of straying from the party line on some of the key issues animating the radical 3 percent of voters who decide Republican primaries in Texas. 

In 2021, Gonzales, a former Navy cryptologist, was one of two House Republicans to vote in favor of forming a commission to investigate the riot at the Capitol on January 6. In 2022, in response to the massacre of 21 children and teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which lies within his congressional district, Gonzales voted for minor reforms to federal gun laws. Later that year, he joined 38 other House Republicans in supporting federal protections for same-sex marriage, in case the Supreme Court ever overturns its 2015 decision granting LGBTQ couples the right to marry. 

Finally, last year, Gonzales opposed a bill that would have given the Homeland Security secretary unilateral authority to bar migrants from coming into the country through ports of entry—a measure Gonzales decried as “not Christian” and “very anti-American,” fearing that it would endanger asylum seekers fleeing violence from corrupt police and criminal gangs in their home countries. For breaking the party line, the Republican Party of Texas censured Gonzales last spring, a rare admonition with only a single precedent at the time. In 2018, the body voted to censure Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a centrist who opposed legislation restricting which restrooms transgender Texans could use. (It has since done the same to state representative Andrew Murr and House Speaker Dade Phelan for their roles in the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton).  

At the February 8 debate, those votes were used as cudgels to drive home the necessity, as each candidate saw it, of tossing Gonzales out of office. Herrera accused Gonzales of “vot[ing] with Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi on a gun control bill” and “fighting real Republicans on real border issues.” Never mind that the post-Uvalde legislation imposed few new regulations on gun sales and only provided funding to states that implement red flag laws and gave courts more latitude in prohibiting the sale of firearms to those convicted of domestic violence. (Gonzales, in defending his vote, revealed that as a child, he’d watched his stepfather threaten his mother with a gun.)

And never mind that Gonzales ultimately supported a dialed-back version of the immigration bill, which placed significant restrictions on asylum claims. Such moderating impulses are tantamount to betrayal in today’s GOP—and worse, in the eyes of opponents, they signal complicity in the plot to destroy the very fabric of our nation. The stakes have never been higher, as Gonzales’s challengers see it, and that’s why they’re running.

On the debate stage, each candidate offered an apocalyptic vision of the state of the nation, and of the even darker fate that awaits it if voters choose against them. Herrera’s pet issue is guns—he has argued in favor of abolishing the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose overreach, he warned, could turn millions of law-abiding Americans “into felons overnight.” Lopez asserted that children are “trafficked into this country to feed a horrible, demonic, perverted hunger for the bodies of little boys and little girls”—echoing unfounded yet viral QAnon conspiracy theories that a cult of Democratic elitists is molesting and eating children. Avila warned that under the current corrupt Justice Department, devout Christians “could be arrested because you believe in God.” Clark dubbed her recent campaign swing through the district the Last Stand for Texas Tour because, she told the audience, “we truly believe the 2024 election is going to be the last stand for this country if we don’t get involved, if we don’t elect the right people to represent us and are doing it for the right reasons.” 

So who are the right people? And what are the right reasons?

It seems unthinkable now, but in Democrats’ increasingly flailing crusade to turn Texas blue—based in large part on the belief that changing demographics and a growing Hispanic population guarantee electoral success—the Twenty-third Congressional District was once a ripe target for the party. When Democratic U.S. Trade Representative Office director Gina Ortiz Jones lost to centrist Republican incumbent Will Hurd in 2018 by a little more than 1,000 votes, the message was clear: this was a district Dems could win in 2020. Hurd saw the writing on the wall and retired, and the Democratic Party threw its weight behind Jones when she ran again. Ahead of the 2020 election, she was a fund-raising juggernaut, bringing in more than $4 million. This time, however, she faced not a moderate conservative but a MAGA candidate touting the endorsement of Donald Trump. Gonzales framed his candidacy as a rejection of the moderate GOP, calling to repeal the Affordable Care Act and rallying for the border wall his Republican predecessor had decried. Trump had more success among Texas Latinos than most predicted, and Gonzales won by more than 10,000 votes. 

Then, in 2021, Texas lawmakers redrew the borders of the district to change it from one Trump won by fewer than two percentage points to one he would have carried by seven. Gonzales coasted to reelection. 

As went the old district lines, however, so went the barriers to far-right candidates. Gonzales, once considered the Trumpian answer to a moderate such as Will Hurd, now finds himself branded a false conservative and an opponent of the MAGA movement. The four challengers hoping to unseat him cling to the mantle of Trump, praising the former president’s rejection of the old GOP of Joe Straus and the Bushes that they hope to render extinct. When asked whether they believed January 6 was an “insurrection,” each candidate at the debate said no; Gonzales has called those who stormed the Capitol “domestic terrorists.” 

Trump hasn’t yet endorsed in the race. Notably, he only endorsed Gonzales in 2020 during his primary runoff with Republican retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Raul Reyes, which Gonzales ultimately won by 45 votes. 

At the Bexar County debate, Herrera displayed a penchant for showmanship reminiscent of the reality-show president. He engaged with the empty chair, at one point theatrically craning his neck to peer at it. Herrera likes to repeat that he is not a politician—and he demonstrably is not. But he does have a baked-in media savvy that feels very learned. The firearms manufacturer and professional YouTuber has built built a formidable online presence, with more than 3 million subscribers to his channel, which is characterized by humor-tinted macho fantasies (e.g. “NASHVILLE SHOOTER GETS ABSOLUTELY FOLDED”; “KEEP MY AK-50 OUT OF YOUR F—ING MOUTH”). After the debate, he told me that getting an empty chair onstage had been a personal request of his, which the Republican Party of Bexar County had accommodated. (McManus, the Bexar County GOP chair, said a few candidates had requested the empty seat, though he couldn’t remember who.)

There was no doubt in Herrera’s mind that his online savvy was helping to bolster his campaign. “We’ve been able to use a social media following—a very militant pro-liberty group, a very, very rabid pro-freedom following—and direct and funnel that energy into unseating a bad vote in Congress,” he told me. “That’s something that I don’t think has ever been done in the political landscape.” His website is short on policy prescriptions, but if elected to Congress, he has assured his fans he will continue to populate his YouTube channel with entertaining videos.

Avila and Lopez Jr., meanwhile, lack the Trumpian flair for the theatrical, but both speak about the former president as if his return to the White House is a done deal. They talk of a blissful tomorrow, as they see it, when they will work side by side with the president to whip the border into shape. Lopez, a straggler in the race who has lost to Gonzales before and who has little to show in the way of campaign contributions or popular support, spoke excitedly of starting “massive deportations” under a Trump presidency. 

Avila, a true contender, also echoes Trumpian talking points. A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, he gained minor fame in the conservative media sphere with a backstory fit for an action movie. While on assignment in Mexico in 2011, he and his partner were ambushed by the murderous Los Zetas cartel. His partner was killed at his side, and Avila was radicalized. His border-related fears extend beyond cartel violence. In an interview, he expressed his concern that undocumented migrants refuse to assimilate and are changing the fabric of the country, unlike his parents, who came here from Mexico the legal way and left their old allegiances behind. “The American dream is dead now,” he told me, because migrants are bringing communist ideals and persisting in flying the flags of their home countries. Avila said Gonzales is worse than a Republican in name only. “He’s a full-blown Democrat,” he said, before adding, charitably, “There’s nothing wrong with being a Democrat—be a Democrat. It’s okay. But he’s a Democrat in disguise.” 

Clark would never go so far as to say it’s “okay” to be a Democrat—but she does exhibit a special disdain for perceived infiltrators within her own party. The operator of the Rockin’ Sass Boutique, in Bandera, a small town outside San Antonio, her proudest accomplishment is having spearheaded the initial censure resolution against Gonzales in March of last year in Medina County, before the state party followed suit. She boasts often that the other candidates are all talk when it comes to their opposition to the incumbent, but she took action. At Clark’s campaign event at the Dominion Country Club, in San Antonio, the week before the debate, copies of her censure declaration sat stacked on tables.

Clark pointed to the 2020 election results as what galvanized her interest in running for office. “I couldn’t believe what was happening to this country,” she said. Wearing a sky-blue blazer, her auburn hair styled into a dramatic bouffant, she rattled off a wide-ranging list of looming existential threats that Gonzales is failing to stop. “I truly believe they’re trying to destroy this country from within,” she said, without specifying who exactly “they” were. The signs of imminent destruction, as she saw it, were: open borders; rampant crime; inflation; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; election interference; “gender modification”; and, simply put, “cartel” (she did not specify which).

“But I feel hope is alive,” she assured the crowd. “And I truly see that when Trump is out campaigning and he gets so many people, I mean, it just grows and grows. And we get such great turnouts—I mean, look at this room.” The audience of no more than thirty attendees watched in silence.

None of Gonzales’s four challengers have come close to matching his fund-raising, which is key to getting a candidate’s message out, especially in a district as vast as the Twenty-third. As of the most recent Federal Elections Commission filings, Gonzales had outraised all his challengers combined, bringing in $2.9 million. Clark, who self-funded much of her campaign, and Herrera had each raised more than $800,000. There’s no public polling on the race, but Gonzales is the presumptive favorite. The potential trouble for his campaign is that crowded primaries have historically helped upstart right-wingers unseat moderate Republicans in Texas. If the incumbent fails to gain an outright majority of the vote in March, he’ll be forced into a runoff with the second-place finisher in May, when right-wing interests might more squarely align against him. 

Gonzales, who declined an interview request through a spokesperson, has projected a stone-faced indifference to the incursion against him. He shrugged off his party’s censure, noting that his voting record has fallen almost entirely along the party line. He doubled down on his vote for the gun bill, telling reporters at a news conference, “I would vote twice on it if I could.” In an interview with the Texas Tribune, he fiercely defended his legislative independence, saying “I don’t take any s— from anybody.” Recently, he took aim at Herrera on X, calling the candidate “scum and villainy” for joking on a podcast, “I often think about putting a gun in my mouth, so I’m basically an honorary veteran.” (Herrera accused Gonzales of taking his remark out of context and taunted: “Doesn’t matter though, you’re still losing your seat. I’m glad you’re scared though.”)

Onstage in Aggie Park, Herrera said the “real enemies” in Congress were those clinging to an outdated vision of conservatism—and, one might add, of civil behavior—that Trump has demolished. The new guard that Herrera hopes to work alongside includes Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, and their ilk—those who represent what he considers “actual America First values.” And if Americans will vote in the new, then nature will take care of the old. “They’re gonna die. They’re just like Dianne Feinstein,” said Herrera, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “They’re gonna cast a vote and die of old age later that day.”