U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez wants GOP voters to believe that Mayra Flores is the weaker primary candidate

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, at a press conference with U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff of California about the money the Rio Grande Valley is receiving from President Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure bill at the Texas Southmost College auditorium in Brownsville on Sept. 8, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, would have Republican voters in his district believe that he’s more afraid of facing off against a political newcomer who has no staff and no money, than he is of former U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores — who briefly held the seat in 2022 and has the backing of former President Donald Trump.

Gonzalez’ campaign recently got involved in the Republican primary by sending out mailers suggesting to GOP voters that he believed self-funded Republican candidate Greg Kunkle would be harder to defeat this November in the general election.

“Public opinion shows that Mayra Flores is the weakest Republican and the easiest to defeat this November,” said a mailer paid for by Gonzales’ campaign.

But Flores is by far the favored Republican candidate in the primary race in fundraising and name recognition. She has strong support from national Republican arms. The National Republican Congressional Committee recruited Flores to run again last May, citing polling that showed her tying with Gonzalez.

Flores has raised over $2 million and has more than $400,000 in cash on hand as of mid February. She won the seat in a 2022 special election, but lost to Gonzalez in the general election only a few months later. Still, her loss last cycle was less than Trump’s loss in the district in 2020. President Joe Biden would have won the district by 15.5 points under the latest district lines.

Kunkle, meanwhile, has not raised a single cent. He is self-financing his campaign and said he has spent less than $4,000 on his bid. Flores has spent well over three times as much just on printing.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, sent out mailers discouraging voters from Republican Mayra Flores' conservative challenger in the district's GOP primary.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, sent out mailers discouraging voters from Republican Mayra Flores' conservative challenger in the district's GOP primary.

Gonzalez’s campaign also sent out mailers, which ostensibly discouraged voters from backing Kunkle. They said Kunkle’s agenda is “not for us” and linked Kunkle to Trump and said he would support a “MAGA AGENDA” and “DEFEND THE JANUARY 6 HOSTAGES.” But those attacks could actually play well among Republican primary voters, who widely support adore Trump.

“I don’t know who his designer is or who created these flyers, but in my opinion, the mailer that he sent out makes me look good,” Kunkle said in an interview.

There is precedent for targeting a weaker primary candidate in hopes they become the nominee. In the 2020 U.S. Senate race, Republican Sen. John Cornyn engaged in a bitter back-and-forth with state Sen. Royce West, who was running in the Democratic primary. But political operatives speculated that Cornyn was actually targeting West to bring him more attention in hopes he would win the primary. MJ Hegar was in the lead for the Democratic nomination and had less of a record Cornyn could point to in the general.

Hegar eventually won the nomination by nearly 8 percentage points and lost to Cornyn in the general election by almost 10 points.

When asked, Gonzalez denied he was engaged in any such tactic and was adamant that he thinks Flores — despite her wide national support, experience in office and extremely deep pockets — was an easier opponent to beat.. He cited her unsuccessful run last cycle where she lost by 8 percentage points despite millions poured in from out of state to support her.

“We have friends who vote in Republican primaries. If our friends & friends & family of our friends who are voting in the Republican primary vote for [Flores], it would definitely smoothen the path into November,” Gonzalez wrote in text messages to The Tribune. “We’re hoping Mayra wins this.”

Gonzalez’s campaign spent $1,758.65 in December on postage, according to FEC disclosures. The Dallas Express first reported the mailers encouraging Republicans to vote for Flores.

Gonzalez "is so desperate that he is burning through what little campaign cash he has to meddle in a Republican primary,” Stephen Lawson, a senior adviser to Flores’ campaign, said in a statement.

National Democrats are confident in Gonzalez's chances, even deriding Republicans as chasing a "delusion" for backing Flores again. The district is historically Democratic and Gonzalez has over twice as much cash on hand.

Gonzalez also said Flores turned off voters with her acerbic style and that she was poorly received in in-person interactions.

Gonzalez said Flores alienated herself with local Republicans after a Cameron County GOP meeting last summer where she angrily confronted Kunkle. She scolded Kunkle as “not on my level,” according to a video of the meeting shared with The Tribune, which Gonzalez said many Republicans found off-putting.

“She’s Super unpopular at the doors. Her own party is trashing her,” Gonzalez said in a text message. “I still believe all politics are local & as you saw from [the] last campaign, money can only go so far, especially once you burn your brand. I see it all the time down here.”

But when asked, Gonzalez didn’t give any metrics to show that Kunkle had actually improved his standing because of the meeting.

Gonzalez and Flores bitterly dislike each other. Gonzalez tripped up his campaign last cycle with a series of gaffs that Flores took personal offense to, including photoshopping her face to look more sinister and giving money to a blogger that used racist slurs to describe Flores. Flores is the first Mexican-born woman elected to Congress. Gonzalez later disavowed the blog posts and swore to never pay the blogger again.

Gonzalez and Flores’ race in 2022 was the first time the congressman faced a serious challenge since his first primary in 2016. He initially represented the neighboring 15th congressional district but switched to 34th after redistricting made the 15th district lean toward Republicans. Republican Monica De La Cruz ended up winning the 15th district that year.

Gonzalez spent more money in 2022 than in any other reelection campaign.

He has no Democratic primary challengers this year.

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