SAN ANTONIO — At a forum here in late November for the Republicans running to replace U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, an audience member made a pointed request, asking the candidates to list three things they do not like about the retiring congressman.
While most of the eight candidates in attendance took turns airing their disagreements with Hurd, some more harshly than others, Tony Gonzales took a pass.
"He is a three-term congressman," Gonzales said of Hurd. "That man can take care of himself."
Of course, Gonzales has something his primary rivals do not: Hurd's endorsement. But while the congressman has earned acclaim for his ability to keep the battleground 23rd District in GOP hands, his moderate profile and disagreements with President Donald Trump may be looming just as large over the primary to succeed him.
All that has left Gonzales, a retired Navy cryptologist, with a delicate path to the nomination.
"I think it's gonna be hard," said Fernando Garcia, chairman of the Val Verde County GOP. "I think he's trying to run a general election strategy in the primary. His strategy may be wonderful in the general, but is it gonna get him out of the primary? I don't know."
Gonzales is laudatory of Hurd but emphatic that the congressman represents one endorsement of many that the candidate is accruing as he works to assemble the diverse GOP support base that he says is necessary to defend the seat. At a recent event, Gonzales said he is even working to earn Trump's endorsement.
"In order to hold this district and help win back the majority for Republicans, the successful candidate must build a broad coalition and Tony Gonzales is doing that," Gonzales spokesman Matt Mackowiak said in a statement. "He has the support of everyone from Congressman Hurd and Land Commissioner George P. Bush to local organizations like the San Antonio Police Officers Association to national organizations like the Republican National Hispanic Assembly to conservative stars like Congressman Dan Crenshaw."
The only black Republican in the U.S. House, Hurd has cultivated a distinct reputation in the massive 23rd District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and hugs hundreds of miles of Texas-Mexico border in between. He has long opposed Trump's signature proposal to build a border wall, disavowed then-nominee Trump after the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016, and has since criticized the president on issues of race and foreign policy. He has broken with his party on several high-profile bills, voting last year for universal background checks for gun sales and for the pro-LGBT Equality Act.
Still, Hurd never drew serious primary opposition while running for reelection, steamrolling challengers in 2016 and 2018 with over 80% of the vote each time.
The general election, of course, has been a different story. Hurd carried the district by less than 1,000 votes in 2018, and his Democratic challenger then, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, is running again and well positioned to win her primary.
National Republican leaders have touted Gonzales as the party's best shot at maintaining their hold on the seat. But first he has to make it out of a nine-way primary — one with no shortage of fellow Republicans with opinions about Hurd.
With the endorsement, Garcia said of his county's politics, Gonzales "became Will Hurd 2.0 to a lot of people here."
Gonzales encountered sharp questions about the Hurd endorsement at a meet-and-greet last month in the county seat, Del Rio. Gonzales responded by saying he and Hurd are "different people" — noting, for example, that he has five kids and speaks fluent Spanish — and emphasizing that the "key is for me to be my own man." Pressed on the political impact of Hurd's endorsement, Gonzales acknowledged there are parts of the district where people "sing [Hurd's] praises" and others, particularly west of San Antonio, where "the less you can say Will Hurd's name," the better.
In any case, though, Gonzales returned to the argument that he will need as wide of a Republican coalition as possible to keep the district red.
"Look, I’m working to a point where I get President Trump’s endorsement," Gonzales said, according to audio obtained by The Texas Tribune. "What is that gonna do for me? You either love President Trump or you do not. It’s one of those things, but at the end of the day, I look at it and I go, I need everybody pulling the wagon. That’s the only way we’re gonna win."
Gonzales also invoked Trump at the November forum, railing against Democrats for coming together to "shut everything down with this ridiculous impeachment scheme" and arguing Republicans need to be just as united to fight back. Gonzales said he was "on a call with Trump" about six weeks before in which the president said the "best way to help me is to win back the majority."
While that was an uncontroversial sentiment at the forum, hosted by the Bexar County GOP, the subject of Hurd sparked stronger emotions. One candidate, Alma Arredondo-Lynch, vowed to go to Washington to "undo his legacy." Another candidate, Raul Reyes Jr., called Hurd a Democrat and said, "If you're endorsed by that guy, you're in trouble."
Such barbs are largely unsurprising — Arredondo-Lynch was Hurd's 2018 primary challenger, and Reyes was already running against Hurd long before the latter announced his retirement decision last year. But even some of the newer entrants are keeping some distance from the outgoing congressman.
Sharon Breckendridge Thomas, a San Antonio lawyer who joined the primary after Hurd revealed he would not seek reelection, said she appreciated Hurd's success in keeping the district red over the years but that her campaign "would be very different."
"I have not had one constituent say to me, 'Make sure when you go to Capitol Hill, you're a moderate,' nor have they said to me, 'We do not want you to back the president of the United States,'" she said. "What they have said to me is that it's time for District 23 representation in Washington to represent the voice of true conservative principles and to support the president of the United States, especially in these dire times that we are living in."
A few weeks after the forum, Gonzales landed an endorsement that perhaps most vividly illustrates the range of his intraparty support: Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, arguably Trump's most vocal supporter in Texas. Miller is confident Gonzales would be a more conservative and pro-Trump representative than Hurd.
"He damn sure better be, that's all I think," Miller quipped in an interview.
Noting Gonzales' wide-ranging GOP endorsements, Miller said it is "really ... not all that wacky that I endorsed him," stressing the need for a candidate to keep the district in Republican hands. Plus, Miller added, Gonzales "wore my ass out," asking for the agriculture commissioner's endorsement an estimated 10 times while Miller did not hear from any of the other candidates.
"I asked him, 'Are you gonna be like the current representative'" when it comes to Trump? Miller said. "And he said, 'Oh, no, I'm gonna support the president.'"