EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Two former service members with compelling personal stories are vying to represent the congressional district with the largest stretch of border in the United States.
That’s a sparsely populated West Texas District 23 being vacated by U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, that stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio to Far East El Paso.
Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democrat, is a former Air Force intelligence officer and captain. She was raised by a mother who despite earning a college degree in the Philippines to come to the United States, worked as a domestic worker.
Jones grew up in subsidized housing and joined the armed forces, serving in the Iraq war. It wasn’t until the end of the “don’t ask don’t tell” era that she felt free to publicly disclose her sexual orientation.
Tony Gonzales, the Republican, is a cryptologist and former Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. He was raised by his grandparents after growing up in an abusive home where his father ended up leaving. “It wasn’t easy, but my grandparents, raised me right,” he says.
He said he worked three jobs in high school and then joined the Navy, where he participated in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He describes himself as a veteran, a conservative and a Christian.
A photo illustration in his campaign website shows him next to a smiling President Trump expressing his endorsement for Gonzales. So, it’s not surprising the candidate backs Trump’s border policies.
“I will support significant increases in border security, with new border wall in high-traffic areas, and work to shut down sanctuary cities and modernize our entry and exit system to limit fraud,” Gonzales says.
The Republican is against abortion, pro Second Amendment and favors school vouchers, low taxes and reducing government regulations.
Jones favors immigration reform and “orderly and welcoming” immigration policies. In her campaign website, she emphasizes that doesn’t mean compromising border security.
She also wants to lower the cost of prescription drugs and help keep health insurance plans in place.
Both candidates vow to bring more jobs and economic development to West Texas.
Swing district in play
Unlike most congressional districts along Texas’ border with Mexico, District 23 isn’t a Democratic bastion. Republicans are just as likely to win here as Democrats.
Hurd won reelection in the 2018 mid-term elections by less than 1,000 votes, with Jones as the challenger. But Democrat Beto O’Rourke beat Republican Ted Cruz here by 5 points in that election, which also saw Republican Gov. Greg Abbott carry a 53% majority.
Democrats Ciro Rodriguez and Pete Gallego have won the district one election cycle and been kicked out by Republicans the next. No Democrat or Republican has won it by more than 5 points in the past decade.
“District 23 is pretty much a coattails district. Hurd did well on the anti-Obama coattails. (But) when Obama was elected to office, then the Democrats did well,” said Charles Boehmer, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
An incumbent like Hurd might have name recognition going for him, in addition to his reputation as a moderate in a volatile district. But Hurd isn’t running, and if the Democrats come out in force, Gonzales might be in trouble, analysts say.
“Gina Ortiz Jones comes into this race already having some name recognition. She is a known factor. I think Gonzales has a much steeper hill to climb,” said Richard Pineda, associate professor of communications at UTEP.
He said one of the reasons the district is unpredictable is the wide swath of conservative rural counties lumped in with urban areas in Bexar and El Paso counties. “In a way, it’s been the product of gerrymandering for at least the past 10 years,” he said.