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Gun rights YouTuber Brandon Herrera gains momentum in race against U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales

Brandon Herrera, Republican candidate for the U.S. House for Texas’ 23rd congressional district, speaks during a campaign event at the Angry Elephant, a politically themed bar, on March 14, 2024 in San Antonio.
Christopher Lee for The Texas Tribune
Brandon Herrera, Republican candidate for the U.S. House for Texas’ 23rd congressional district, speaks during a campaign event at the Angry Elephant, a politically themed bar, on March 14, 2024 in San Antonio.

Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.

WASHINGTON — Stepping out of a recent hearing in the Colorado Legislature to testify against a ban on semi-automatic firearms, pro-gun activist Brandon Herrera griped into a camera about how much he hates these kinds of things.

“I don’t know why I signed up to talk to politicians,” Herrera said, speaking to his 3.3 million gun-loving YouTube subscribers. “I forgot how much I fucking hate doing that.”

He may soon have to.

Herrera, a 28-year-old influencer who made a name for himself online by selling reassembled military-grade weapons and defending gun owners’ rights, is building momentum in his bid to oust U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales — the lone Texas Republican in the House to vote for gun safety legislation that passed in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.

It’s that particular vote that motivated Herrera’s unexpected launch into politics.

“If you vote against our interests, if you vote against gun rights, if you vote against the Constitution, “ Herrera told a crowd of gun rights advocates last week in Denver, “we will challenge you, we will primary you and we will win. We will take your fucking job.”

Known for his politically incorrect online persona as “The AK Guy,” he is guns first, and politics second. His entire brand and fanbase surrounds promoting and sensationalizing guns on his YouTube channel where he explains gun history, trolls gun safety advocates, rates his favorite “gun fails” and shoots a variety of firearms.

His crassness and irreverence has offended many on the left and the right. He has no formal political experience and the most high-profile endorsement he has garnered so far is from Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who was reportedly scolded by GOP House leadership for campaigning against an incumbent.

Despite those hurdles, Herrera has managed to tap into right-wing ire against Gonzales — who is uniquely vulnerable this election cycle for his moderation on guns, as well as a handful of other policy positions Gonzales’ took over the past two years that put him at odds with the state party.

Ahead of the March 5 primary, Gonzales, a San Antonian, appeared well armed to sail into a third term in the 23rd congressional district. His campaign had raised over $2.8 million before the primary — more than three times Herrera’s haul — and had some of the deepest pockets in politics steadfastly backing him. The district stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and includes more of the border than any other Texas district.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, gives an interview in his office at Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2023. Gonzales is a member of the House Appropriations Committees.
Eric Lee for The Texas Tribune
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, gives an interview in his office at Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2023. Gonzales is a member of the House Appropriations Committees.

But Gonzales had made enemies in his party’s right flank — a conflict that showed its heft when he failed to secure an outright victory with only 45% of the vote. In 2022, Gonzales won the primary with 78%. It’s Gonzales’ first major challenge since getting elected to Congress and his first race since the Texas Republican Party censured him last year for policy positions the party deemed insufficiently conservative — including his vote on the gun safety bill. Now Gonzales will face off against Herrera in the primary runoff on May 28.

To many of Gonzales’ primary challengers, getting rid of Gonzales was as much the goal as serving in Congress, and they are now all rallying behind Herrera.

“Guess what???? I’m still in this race to make sure you LOSE!!” third-place candidate Julie Clark, who garnered 14% of the primary vote, said on social media to Gonzales.

Gonzales’ campaign did not make him available for an interview for this story.

The edgelord

Running for Congress was a surprise move to many of Herrera’s followers. He made the announcement at a Young Americans for Liberty event in Florida last August. Though a San Antonio resident now, he had spent much of his life in North Carolina.

His followers largely know him for his YouTube channel, which he said he first started in 2015 as “just some idiot kid making videos with guns.” Often clad in a T-shirt with brushed-back long hair, Herrera delivers monologues like a native of the internet: peppering his speeches with pithy one-liners and laughing when he knows he’s pushing the envelope. He normally speaks from a gaming chair in front of a wall decorated with various firearms.

Popular videos include him testing guns that killed John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln and reviewing “the worst internet gun fails.” He once crashed a gun control rally and tricked anti-gun protestors into signing a petition supporting a pro-gun group, the Firearms Policy Coalition.

His gun-advocacy goes beyond his internet fame. He testified before Congress in a field hearing last year against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as overreaching its authority. He was invited to testify before the Colorado Legislaturelast week to defend access to guns as the state puts together new definitions and restrictions on assault weapons.

Prior to his internet fame, Herrera started a small firearm manufacturing business, from which he got his internet moniker, The AK Guy.

Herrera’s flippant style has generated plenty of controversy. He joked about veteran suicide, saying: “I often think about putting a gun in my mouth, so I’m basically an honorary veteran.” That set off a firestorm of criticism, including from Texas’ Border Czar Mike Banks who called the comment “sickening” on social media.

“I just can't even believe that someone would think that something like that is funny,” Clark, whose husband is a veteran, said in an interview before the primary.

“Special place in hell for scum and villainy who mock veteran suicide or shoot up a church,” Gonzales, who is a retired Navy master chief, posted on social media.

Herrera said that the veteran suicide joke was said in the company of veterans who use dark humor to cope with past trauma (Herrera himself is not a veteran).

“The military has failed veterans. The VA has failed veterans. Politicians have failed veterans. The last thing they have to rely on is dark humor,” Herrera said on the UnsubscribePodcast, which he helps host. “You want to take that from them? Fuck you.”

A campaign sticker for Brandon Herrera.
Christopher Lee for Texas Tribune
A campaign sticker for Brandon Herrera.

Herrera also mocked former President Donald Trump’s son, Barron Trump, as “starting to become a meme” who is “like nine-feet tall.”

“Daddy is coming. Daddy is angry,” Herrera said, mocking the younger Trump.

As he runs for a seat in Congress, Herrera doesn’t appear to be prioritizing friendships with his future colleagues. He joked that politicians were “diddling kids,” then cut himself off “before I’m found hanging from my ceiling fan.” In another video, Herrera joked, “It’s going to be very awkward” when he reads the client list of Jeffrey Epstein — the deceased financier charged with sex trafficking — and sees that “several of the people on that list are my coworkers in Congress.”

Herrera has brushed off criticism as attempts to get him “canceled.” In an interview at a recent San Antonio campaign event, Herrera said that completely changing his tone would mean becoming a “sellout that people are afraid of their politicians being.”

“I’d rather lose for who I am than win for who I’m not,” he said.

Herrera also fielded concerns before the primary that he was a single-issue candidate with regard to guns. Bexar County GOP Chair Jeffery McManus, who supports Herrera, said at the San Antonio campaign event that he should be more vocal in his support of Trump and anti-abortion policy.

During the campaign event, Herrera also spoke at length about inflation and the border — the top priority across Texas Republican voters. It was colored, however, with his penchant to offend.

“You know, I saw a statistic that, last year, more fentanyl came across the southern border by weight than would be required to kill the entire population of the planet — or about 26 Austin feminists,” Herrera said to a burst of applause. “It’s funny the way my mind works now after this whole thing, because I’m already seeing that headline tomorrow.”

Gonzales has no compunction skewering Herrera on social media, casting him as an uninformed carpetbagger who has no business running for Congress. Gonzales noted that Herrera voted in North Carolina for much of his life, calling him an “East Coast fake.” Gonzales’ campaign set up a website highlighting objectionable comments by Herrera under the URL “brandonherrerafortexas.com,” including doubt that Trump could win the general election.

“Anti-Trump Brandon Herrera has trashed Donald Trump on numerous occasions. Perhaps Herrera has been too busy begging for clicks on the internet to notice, but Donald Trump is the GOP’s presumptive nominee and the America First movement is stronger than ever. Herrera’s anti-Trump remarks are a slap in the face to Republicans everywhere,” Gonzales wrote on social media.

Herrera shot back that Gonzales voted to create the bipartisan committee to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The committee eventually referred Trump to the Justice Department for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his involvement in the race.

Getting into a gun fight

Gonzales voted for the bipartisan gun safety bill in 2022 with Uvalde on his mind. The vote was held one month after Texas’ most deadly school shooting which resulted in the deaths of 19 elementary school children and two teachers.

He was one of 14 Republicans in the House to vote with Democrats to pass the bill but no other Texas Republican supported it except for Sen. John Cornyn, who had a leading role in negotiating the legislation. Cornyn also faced backlash in Texas for working on the bill, though he sailed to reelection in 2020. The bill provided federal funding for state and local violence prevention efforts including the implementation of red flag laws. Gonzales used the bill to bring millions of federal funding to Uvalde.

Herrera, for his part, has said red flag laws are unconstitutional and that law enforcement should be held accountable for its botched response to the Uvalde shooting.

Despite his support for the gun safety legislation, Gonzales has a history of defending the Second Amendment, and said he doesn’t support weapons bans or universal background checks. He told CNN in January: “I do not support anything that infringes upon the Constitution or, or prevents those from having due process.”

Still, disdain for Gonzales runs deep among the GOP’s right flank over his gun vote. It was a main pillar of the Texas Republican Party’s censure against Gonzales last year. The party also took issue with his votes supporting gay marriage protections, against a hardline rules package negotiated to make Kevin McCarthy House speaker and against U.S. Rep. Chip Roy’s border security package. Gonzales eventually worked with Roy to get another hardline border security bill passed.

Clark, as then-chair of the Medina County Republican Party, first launched the censure motion against Gonzales, alleging he doesn’t represent the conservative values of the district. Despite her previous misgivings about Herrera’s humor, she endorsed Herrera and said she would do everything in her power to keep Gonzales from office.

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and Brandon Herrera, Republican candidate for the U.S. House for Texas’ 23rd congressional district, speak at a campaign event in San Antonio.
Christopher Lee for Texas Tribune
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and Brandon Herrera, Republican candidate for the U.S. House for Texas’ 23rd congressional district, speak at a campaign event in San Antonio.

It’s a sentiment echoed by the other challenger candidates.

Victor Avila, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agent who also ran in the primary, said he would support whoever was running against Gonzales in the runoff. He also appeared at the San Antonio campaign rally for Herrera.

“From the very beginning, when I met Brandon, we knew that we weren’t challenging each other. The challenge was Tony Gonzales,” Avila said at the event. “We disrupted and dismantled this district in the right way.”

Even before the other primary challengers rallied behind him, Herrera proved himself a formidable candidate, fundraising over $827,000 before the primary mostly through individual contributions.

Despite his relentless gun advocacy, he was able to come in second in Uvalde County with 28.34% of the vote — almost two points more than his district-wide percentage. After the shooting, many of the victims’ families advocated for Texas to raise the legal age to purchase a semi-automatic rifle, like the one the gunman used at the school.

Herrera may get most of his donations from out of state, but he insists that Gonzales is the one who’s out of touch with his district.

“We’ve been going around all over the district to the little towns that a lot of — that Tony doesn’t go to, the towns that are, I think, most negatively impacted by border issues and things, towns like Alpine, Fort Davis, Eagle Pass, just all these little towns that get overlooked for Bexar County or El Paso,” Herrera said.

Gonzales’ campaign hits back that he has visited every county in the district and won a plurality in all of them. Gonzales has a record in delivering on hyperlocal issues in the sprawling district. Don McLaughlin, who was mayor of Uvalde during the Robb Elementary shooting, praised Gonzales for bringing federal aid money to the city in school safety grants.

In Brewster County, where Gonzales did worse than his district-wide average, County Judge Greg Henington said Gonzales had visited the county many times and has been easily accessible to him. Henington credited Gonzales for securing funding for Marathon School in the county.

“If I do need him for something or advice on what's going on in Washington, I have not had any issues with him. He's been responsive to me,” Henington said. Henington stressed that he could not endorse in the race as a nonpartisan official.

To Tony’s rescue

Shortly after the primary, House Republican leadership came out endorsingGonzales. House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a statement that Gonzales has “gone above and beyond to keep the pressure” on the Biden administration on the border and called him “one of the hardest working members I have the pleasure of serving with.” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and Majority Whip Tom Emmer all issued similar statements.

Gonzales has also made moves to push back on being labeled a moderate, telling the Tribune last year that he would rather call himself “a conservative Hispanic. But many people call me many different things. And they’re not all good.”

He was one of the leading advocates for impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — an effort spearheaded by far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.

He also signed onto a letter led by House Freedom Caucus leaders, including Roy, with whom he feuded over border legislation, threatening to vote against federal funding legislation that doesn’t include hardline enforcement measures at the border. When a group of Texas Republicans sent out a similar letter in August, Gonzales did not sign on. Gonzales is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which sets federal funding levels for individual programs.

Still, he has a lot of backing from moderating forces in Congress. His top two donors are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying and campaign organization that gives to members of both parties, and the No Labels Problem Solvers Political Action Committee, a group that promotes bipartisanship.

“We proudly endorse Rep. Tony Gonzales, as he has proven to be a strong supporter of the US-Israel relationship during his tenure in Congress. For example, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, he has worked to ensure that Israel has the resources it needs to defend itself against Hamas and other Iranian terrorist proxies,” AIPAC’s political action committee said in a statement. The group said it would continue to support Gonzales into the runoff.

Gonzales also enjoys support for corporate interests, including Dell Technologies, Toyota and Devon Energy, all of whom gave $5,000, the maximum individual contribution per election.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also endorsed Gonzales after the primary, potentially paving the way for a Trump endorsement ahead of the runoff. Trump endorsed Gonzales before his competitive 2020 runoff, helping him beat Sen. Ted Cruz-backed rival Raul Reyes.

Herrera said Patrick’s endorsement was “disappointing” though “I wish he really paid more attention to Tony’s record.” Herrera pointed out that he worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and was hoping to secure his endorsement.

Still, Herrera takes pride in his grassroots operation. His YouTube following was a major force in his ability to get where he is now.

“I don’t have any big shady corporate donors. I don’t have any Super PACs. I don’t have any of that stuff,” Herrera said in a YouTube video. “I have an army of militant pissed off autists who want to remind their politicians that they can be held accountable. And at the end of the day, that proved to be enough.”

From The Texas Tribune