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Texas Rep. Tony Gonzales barely wins GOP runoff against gun-rights activist in closely-watched contest

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YouTuber challenging incumbent Texas Republican in runoff election 03:42

Austin, Texas — Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas narrowly won his primary Tuesday against a gun-rights activist who pushed the border congressman into a bruising runoff that threatened to unseat a U.S. House incumbent.

Another prominent Texas Republican, state House Speaker Dade Phelan, also edged out a challenger from the right who was backed by former President Donald Trump.

Both won by razor-thin margins, reflecting the anger of hard-line conservatives and a wave of party turbulence in America's biggest red state over votes that bucked party lines and the impeachment of state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Gonzales defeated Brandon Herrera, a gun enthusiast who calls himself "The AK Guy" on social media and attacked him over positions that angered the GOP's hard right in Texas. Supporters of Gonzales had warned that a loss in Tuesday's election could open the door for Democrats to flip the district in November.

Brandon Herrera, Tony Gonzales CBS News

During the campaign, Herrera attacked the two-term Republican over his support for a gun-safety bill after the 2022 Uvalde school shooting - which happened in Gonzales' district - and past criticism of hard-line immigration proposals.

Gonzales will face Democrat Santos Limon in the November general election.

Gonzales, whose critics cast him as a moderate within the GOP, called some of his hard-right colleagues in Congress "scumbags" during an interview with CNN in April.

He was censured by the Republican Party of Texas in 2023 over his support for same-sex marriage protections at the federal level and the bipartisan gun-safety bill following the Uvalde mass shooting.

But Gonzales drew support from top Republicans - including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott - at a time when the party holds a thin majority in the House. U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson attended a fundraiser for Gonzales.

Herrera is a gun manufacturer who posts videos about weapons and gun rights and has more than 3 million followers on YouTube.

 Gonzales told CBS News in a recent interview that these lawmakers and his opponent aren't "serious people." 

"There's a bigger battle happening outside this race, and it is what is the future of the Republican party going to look like?" Gonzales said. "Is it going to be governing conservatives like myself, or is it going to be these bomb-throwing gestures that want to come up here and burn the place down?"

Given his backing by establishment Republicans, Gonzales significantly outraised Herrera in the race. Gonzales had brought in $3.4 million through May 8 compared to $367,000 for Herrera through the same period. 

Gonzales attacked Herrera for having having moved to the district only in the past few years, while Herrera pounced on Gonzales' vote in 2022 for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which included a provision for the "boyfriend" loophole for gun purchases, the first time any type of gun control legislation has passed Congress since the 1990s. Gonzales was one of 14 Republicans who voted for the bill.

In the interview with CBS News, Gonzales defended his vote and said he "worked very hard" to ensure the legislation "protected the Constitution, but also solved some problems." 

"What it did do is raise increased background checks for minors, and I think that is a positive thing," Gonzales said. 

Gonzales told "Face the Nation" Sunday that he "knew it at the time" when he cast the vote for the 2022 bill that it would hurt him politically, but he insisted he's not "afraid of that vote."

Here's a look at other key primary runoffs in Texas

Phelan, who finished second in March to challenger David Covey, a former local party chairman and oil and gas consultant who was backed by Trump, rallied to scrape out the primary win Tuesday.

Phelan's victory at least temporarily staved off a push from Paxton and others to force him out of his leadership role in the state's dominant party. But a shakeup in the Texas Capitol could still lay ahead.

While the win keeps Phelan on the general election ballot in his southeast Texas district, the bruising primary fight leaves questions about his ability to retain the speakership.

At his election night party, Phelan declared victory in what he called "a terrible, awful, knockdown, drag-out" fight and told supporters he will remain speaker.

"I think this runoff did me a favor," Phelan said. "It let my voters know what my real record is."

The race was a snapshot of fractures within the GOP nationally. Phelan, who has been speaker since 2021, came under fire after his chamber voted last year to impeach Paxton on bribery and corruption charges. Paxton was later acquitted in the state Senate.

Phelan presided over votes that enacted some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the country, vastly expanded gun rights, supported Abbott's highly visible anti-immigration platforms and curtailed LGBTQ+ rights.

After Phelan declared victory, Covey and Paxton accused him of attracting Democrats to vote for him in the Republican primary and push him over the top. Texas has an open primary system, meaning voters can cross party lines to vote.

"Dade Phelan may have won this election, but in doing so, he has irrevocably destroyed his already feeble legacy," Covey said.

Katrina Pierson, a former spokeswoman for Trump, defeated incumbent Justin Holland for his state House seat in the Dallas suburbs.

Holland was among House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton. He also voted in favor of raising the age for purchasing assault rifles from 18 to 21 and against Abbott's plan to spend public education money on private schools. Abbott campaigned for Pierson.

Republicans picked Jay Furman, a retired Navy veteran, as the nominee to run in November against Henry Cuellar, a longtime Democratic congressman who along with his wife was indicted this spring on federal bribery, money laundering and fraud charges. Cuellar has said he is innocent; three associates have pleaded guilty in related investigations.

Furman defeated rancher and businessman Lazaro Garza in the South Texas district that Cuellar has held since 2005. Both campaigned on tighter border security and immigration restrictions.

There was another Cuellar on the ballot, as well: Rosie Cuellar, his sister, was defeated by Cecilia Castellano in the Democratic runoff for a South Texas state House seat. The March primary was held before Henry Cuellar was indicted.

The winner advances to the November general election against Republican Don McLaughlin, who was mayor of Uvalde when the school shooting happened.

Republicans also chose real estate businessman and state House Rep. Craig Goldman over construction company businessman John O'Shea to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the nation's longest-serving GOP congresswoman. Goldman will face Democrat Trey Hunt in the heavily-Republican district anchored in Fort Worth.

Granger, 81, was first elected in 1996 and is a former chairwoman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. She announced last year she would not seek re-election.

-- Caroline Linton contributed reporting

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