John Lira methodically worked his way through a Socorro neighborhood one early August evening, stopping at homes where voters had cast a Democratic primary ballot in years past.
The retired Marine is hoping to get these far East El Paso County voters behind him this November, voters who he says will play a key role in flipping Texas’ 23rd Congressional District from Republican to Democrat-controlled.
Spanning the West Texas-Mexico border and stretching from El Paso to San Antonio, District 23 has long been one of the state’s most competitive.
The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrew the state’s political boundaries last year, bolstering incumbent Republican Tony Gonzales’ re-election chances. Under the new lines, former President Donald Trump would have carried District 23 by 7 percentage points in 2020, up from 2 points under the previous lines.
Still, Lira is undeterred and said his “boots on the ground” approach — which will take him to all 29 counties in the district by the end of September — will allow him to unseat the first-term congressman.
“I value relationships, so we have been getting out into the district and forming the relationships that we’re gonna need to flip it,” Lira told El Paso Matters during his August visit. It was his seventh trip to El Paso since May 2021, when he officially announced his candidacy.
About 99,000 El Paso County residents live in District 23, about 13% of the district’s population.
Gonzales did not make himself available for an interview, despite repeated requests made to his communications director.
He recently told The Texas Tribune that he is taking this race “extremely seriously.”
Gonzales, a retired Naval officer, doesn’t just have to contend with Lira. He also faces independent candidate Frank Lopez Jr., the former chair of the Val Verde County Republican Party and a retired U.S. Border Patrol agent who has called Gonzales “a liberal infiltrator” and a RINO (Republican in name only). Lopez managed Raul Reyes’ 2020 Republican primary campaign against Gonzales, which Reyes narrowly lost by 39 votes.
“The primary is where good candidates who are not establishment go to die,” Lopez said of his decision to run as an independent. He said he wanted to give voters “a true constitutional conservative, America First choice.”
Gonzales drew backlash this summer after he was the sole Texas Republican in the U.S. House to side with Democrats on the bipartisan gun safety bill Congress passed in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting in his district. He was also criticized for being the sole Texas Republican in Congress to vote for legislation that would protect the federal right to same-sex marriage.
In response, Pecos and Medina counties’ Republican parties censured him. Bexar County’s Republican party considered following suit, but ultimately decided against it.
Days after the Bexar County GOP vote, Gonzales held a telephone town hall with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a far-right lawmaker who promotes baseless conspiracy theories. Gonzales recently co-sponsored Greene’s bill that would make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth.
Lira said Lopez’s entry into the race is one of the windows of opportunity — or what he calls “pathways to victory” — that have opened up since his campaign launch. Another is “the Beto bump,” he said, or the hope that voters excited about Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O’Rourke will also vote for down-ballot Democrats. O’Rourke has endorsed Lira.
Still, it will be difficult for Lira to win in November, said Jon Taylor, chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“This is where the power of incumbency comes into play. This is where money comes into play,” Taylor said.
Gonzales has outraised Lira by more than 10 to 1, according to campaign finance reports. The national Democratic party has put more of its focus on competitive districts in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley than it has on District 23.
“That I think is a big mistake by the Democrats,” Taylor said, noting that District 23 is only slightly more Republican than it was in prior elections.
As Lira travels across the district, he said he is trying to connect with potential voters, regardless of party.
“I’m not positioning myself as a partisan, I’m positioning myself as a partner,” he said. “Do you want your kids to be safe in schools? Do you want gas prices and inflation to drop? Do you want development and investment to come to your community? Because if you do, I want to be that partner for you.”
Gun control and abortion access — two policy areas he said he never expected to be a focus of the race — are also at the top of voters’ minds.
Lira supports the right to abortion, while Gonzales has sponsored a number of bills that would limit abortion access. On his campaign website, Gonzales called Roe v. Wade a “flawed decision” by the Supreme Court and states that “all life is sacred, starting at conception.”
Lira said he supports raising the federal minimum age to purchase assault rifles — like those the 18-year-old Uvalde gunman legally purchased — to 21.
In the days after the shooting, Gonzales voted against a House bill that would have raised the minimum age from 18 to 21, telling Newsweek he did so because the bill had no chance of passing the Senate. He has declined to say whether he would support such a measure when asked by multiple TV reporters.
Lira also supports red flag laws, which allow judges to temporarily take guns away from someone considered an imminent danger, something Gonzales opposes. Texas does not have red flag laws, and there are no federal ones.
Much of Gonzales’ focus has been on the border. District 23 includes 800 plus miles of the U.S-Mexico border, the longest stretch of any congressional district.
The congressman was last in the El Paso region in late August when he brought a handful of Republican congressional candidates to Fort Hancock to tour the border fence and speak with U.S. Border Patrol agents.
“Tony is a one-issue candidate when it comes to this,” Lira said. “He likes to discredit our border communities, he likes to call them terrorist havens, he likes to call them refugee camps, he likes to dehumanize the migrants who are coming across.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis. This is not an invasion,” he added. “I was part of an invasion — I invaded Iraq.”
Lira said that Congress must create more legal pathways for migrants, particularly for those already living in the United States. He favors expanding work visas, which he said would benefit farmers and ranchers in the district, something Gonzales also supports.
Early voting begins Oct. 24, and Election Day is Nov. 8.