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Donald Trump, Ted Cruz back opposing candidates in competitive GOP runoff to replace U.S. Rep. Will Hurd

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

As early voting got underway, Cruz shook up the TX-23 runoff by endorsing conservative underdog Raul Reyes. Three days later, Trump backed national GOP favorite Tony Gonzales.

The race for Texas' 23rd Congressional District, a perennial November battleground, is never without drama. But the Republican nominating battle is especially delivering this time — thanks lately to dueling endorsements by two of the biggest GOP names that could possibly get involved.

As early voting got underway two weeks ago, U.S. Sen.  Ted Cruz shook up the runoff by  endorsing conservative underdog Raul Reyes — and then three days later, President Donald Trump  backed national GOP favorite Tony Gonzales. The whirlwind week set off a wave of speculation about behind-the-scenes machinations and recriminations, while Democrats watched the GOP fracture with glee.

Cruz's endorsement in particular complicated Gonzales' closing pitch that the former Navy cryptologist is the best choice to unify the party and keep the seat red in November. But in an interview after Trump's endorsement, Gonzales maintained he is still the strongest candidate to do that, and the president's backing only reinforces it.

"We have a lot of momentum," Gonzales said, "and it’s going to take everybody if we're gonna hold this seat, and Tony Gonzales is the only one who can hold this seat."

In the runoff's final hours, Trump's campaign is making sure voters know who his choice is. On Monday, the campaign sent a  cease-and-desist letter to Reyes, citing a "misleading" mailer from Reyes featuring the president's image.

"So there is no doubt, let us be absolutely clear about this: President Trump and the Trump Campaign unambiguously endorse Tony Gonzales," top Trump staffer Michael Glassner wrote in the letter.

Reyes, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, said Friday he "still very much love[s]" Trump despite the snub.

"We think he’s made this endorsement in error, but it’s happened and it’s out there," Reyes said during an  online interview with the GOP activist Duke Machado. "People are just going to have to decide: Do you want an establishment guy who’s gonna pay lip service to keeping Texas red, or the guy from Del Rio who understands what you’re saying about the problems we have here?"

Gonzales and Reyes are vying for the Republican nomination to replace retiring U.S. Rep.  Will Hurd, R-Helotes, who has endorsed Gonzales along with the top Republican leaders in the House. The seat is national Democrats' best pickup opportunity this fall in Texas, and they are bullish about their already selected nominee: Gina Ortiz Jones, who lost to Hurd two years ago by a razor-thin margin.

On the Republican side, the high-level endorsement drama added to a runoff that had already been bitter for weeks, with Reyes attacking Gonzales as a GOP establishment tool and Gonzales hitting Reyes as a risky bet in the general election. The better-funded Gonzales has been blasting away at Reyes on TV and in mailboxes, though he avoided direct criticism during the interview, saying the contrast between the two is one of coalition-building.

"I've been able to bring people together that otherwise would not be together," Gonzales said.

Gonzales has had Hurd's endorsement since early in the primary, and Reyes has hammered at it while arguingthat Gonzales would continue the legacy of the moderate lawmaker who occasionally splits with his party — and Trump. Reyes was already challenging Hurd in the primary before the incumbent announced last summer he would not seek reelection.

"You want Will Hurd 2.0? My opponent is your guy," Reyes told Machado.

Gonzales finished first in the nine-way March primary — 5 percentage points ahead of Reyes — and has had a decisive financial advantage since the start of the race, raising well over $1 million. On their pre-runoff campaign finance filings — covering April 1 through June 24 — Gonzales reported raising nearly three times as much as Reyes did and spending more than twice as much. He ended the period with just under $400,000 cash on hand to Reyes' $59,000.

They are both far behind Jones, who easily won her March primary and entered July with $3 million in the bank, according to campaign figures.

National Republican leaders had signaled some support for Gonzales in the primary but made it official weeks into the two-man race, with Gonzales announcing endorsements from the top two Republicans in the House, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise. But in an effort to show he was bringing the party together, Gonzales also secured — and emphasized — the support of people like Alma Arredondo-Lynch, the third-place primary finisher and a feisty Hurd critic. Like Reyes, she had also been running against Hurd prior to his retirement announcement.

Those had been some of the most notable endorsements in the runoff — until the first week of early voting came around.

Cruz, Trump weigh in

A few days before Cruz endorsed Reyes on June 30, the senator brought up the runoff at the end of an unrelated phone call with Trump, according to a person close to the senator who was granted anonymity to describe the private conversation. Cruz let Trump know he would be backing Reyes and told the president about comments that Gonzales  made in late September saying he had not "fully developed a position" on the House's Trump impeachment inquiry, which was in its early stages then.

Gonzales' interest in a Trump endorsement was not a secret — he had said during the primary that he hoped to eventually earn the president's support. And it looked like the stars were aligning on the first day of early voting, when Gonzales wrote on Facebook that he would have "HUGE news to share later this week."

A day later, Cruz made the Reyes endorsement official, saying the district "deserves strong conservative representation." He also tapped funds in his leadership political action committeeto launch a six-figure TV ad buy for Reyes that vowed he would be a strong Trump ally if elected. A Hurd-led super PAC that had boosted Gonzales in the primary, the Future Leaders Fund, had already announced plans to spend six figures on TV in the runoff.

The all-in endorsement was a somewhat curious play by Cruz, who has built a reputation for going against party leaders' preferences but has largely stayed out of intraparty contests down-ballot this cycle in Texas. The only other competitive House nominating contest that Cruz waded into this year in Texas was the primary for the district where he lives in Houston — and that was to back favorite Wesley Hunt, the top national GOP recruit challenging Rep.  Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston.

Cruz's Reyes endorsement was not entirely a mystery, though. If Reyes prevails Tuesday, it would set up a high-stakes test study of Cruz's longtime political theory that Republicans win when they run unapologetic conservatives who energize the base versus more moderate candidates who, in Cruz's view, fruitlessly chase independent voters.

Gonzales' campaign had a simpler explanation for Cruz's intervention, pointing out that Reyes also employs the main political consulting firm that works with Cruz, Axiom Strategies. Gonzales spokesperson Matt Mackowiak  called Cruz's move a "catastrophic endorsement of a candidate who cannot win" in November and "strategically indefensible."

Two days after Cruz waded in, word of his conversation with Trump got out in a  New York Times story, which noted it was "now unclear what the president will do."

Within 24 hours, Trump answered the question, tweeting his endorsement of Gonzales.

Gonzales and his team celebrated — and moved quickly to get the endorsement in front of voters, cutting a new ad highlighting it.

On Friday, Reyes offered a theory for why Trump got involved.

"My best guess is Kevin McCarthy pulled in there and said, 'We've got to get this guy out of the fire,'" Reyes said, suggesting the House minority leader is less interested in helping the 23rd District than lining up candidates who would support him for speaker if they win in November.

McCarthy has not shied away from the runoff in the homestretch, starring in a  robocall Wednesday that promoted Gonzales as "the only candidate who can win Texas 23." The call did not mention Reyes, but McCarthy said that if Gonzales loses Tuesday, "we'll be handing Nancy Pelosi a seat that Republicans once held."

As for Cruz, he reiterated his support for Reyes earlier Wednesday, including him in a new effort to raise over $100,000 each for 25 conservative candidates this cycle. The fundraising pledge is only for the general election. And on the eve of the runoff, Cruz is holding a tele-town hall with Reyes.

An already nasty runoff

Things were already bitter — and personal — between the runoff candidates before Cruz and Trump got involved.

Gonzales has singled out the “Reyes Cartel” for attacking him, his campaign workers and even “my own mother.” Those tensions appear togo back to the primary, when Gonzales’ mom  filed a police report accusing a Reyes supporter of surveilling her son.

One of Reyes’ top hits on Gonzales is that he is too cozy with the League of United Latin American Citizens, which Reyes has called an anti-Trump “open borders” group. Gonzales has said Reyes is making hay out of a "one-time donation that went to help underprivileged children."

Gonzales has seized on the circumstances of Reyes leaving an administrative job with Southwest Texas Junior College in 2017. A Gonzales TV ad claims Reyes was fired from the job, though Reyes says he resigned, and a spokesperson for the school confirmed that to The Texas Tribune last week.

Amid the back-and-forth Tuesday, Reyes issued a news release denouncing Gonzales’ “losing, lying, liberal LULAC-loving campaign.” And Reyes said Friday that a post-runoff reconciliation would be difficult.

"We intend to win, Duke, but if he does win, he's gonna wanna try and heal some things — you can’t come back from that," Reyes told the online interviewer, adding that there were "integrity issues" at play.

Even before Trump endorsed Gonzales, there was tension around the president's specter in the runoff. After Reyes sent out a mailer featuring images of Trump superimposed alongside him, a Trump campaign adviser, Katrina Pierson,  took to Twitter to call the piece "misleading, and possibly unethical" — and remind voters that the president had not endorsed in the runoff at that point.

The jockeying for Trump's support has been a boon to Democrats, who see the president as a general-election liability in the district, which he lost by 4 percentage points in 2016. Republicans figure Democrats will link whomever they nominate to Trump regardless of his endorsement — and Jones has done little to disprove their suspicions.

"No matter who wins the Republican runoff for TX-23, the general election will be the same," she wrote in a fundraising email Thursday. "I'll face off against a Trump puppet who will support the Trump administration's extreme agenda regardless of how much it harms Texas families."