Democratic candidate Gina Ortiz Jones (left) and Republican candidate Tony Gonzales. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier and Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A traditional swing district stretching from Bexar County to the western reaches of Texas is back in play as three-term U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Helotes) will vacate the seat this year. While there’s no shortage of names on the ballot, two clear frontrunners have emerged.

As early voting begins Tuesday, Gina Ortiz Jones seems to have the edge over five Democratic candidates, and Tony Gonzales appears to have the upper hand in a field of nine Republicans.

In her second campaign for the seat, Jones, who came within 926 votes of beating Hurd in 2018, has raised a total of about $2.5 million, drawing contributions from some of the biggest institutional supporters in Democratic politics. Her nearest challenger, Rosey Abuabara, has raised just $16,000.

With a significant war chest to draw from – she still has more than $2 million on hand – the 23rd Congressional District appears to be Jones’ to lose, said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

“She’s the favorite to win that seat simply because 2018 uncovered some dynamics in Texas politics that are continuing into 2020, and I do think Democrats will pick up that seat,” Jillson said.

However, Jillson believes a runoff is probable in both primary races.

To win the nomination outright on March 3, Jones will have to win more than 50 percent of the vote in a race that includes San Antonio residents Abuabara, a surgical practice administrator, and community health worker Ricardo Madrid; Alpine attorney Jaime Escuder; and Efrain Valdez, Del Rio’s former mayor and Val Verde county judge.

Jones, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as an intelligence officer, will look to build on her nearly victorious 2018 campaign – her first foray into politics but one in which she defied expectations, defeating a field that included former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings, who had the backing of former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro.

The Castro twins, along with numerous other progressive powerhouses, have endorsed Jones’ second bid for the 23rd District seat.

Despite her sizable advantage, Jones said she isn’t taking anything for granted.

“The hard work still remains of making sure that folks know what’s at stake, and I’m the one that’s going to be best able to represent them,” she said.

The 23rd congressional district had boomeranged between the parties since 2006 when longtime U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Republican, lost his seat to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. In 2018, Hurd became the first representative of the district to win three consecutive terms since Bonilla.


Although Hurd has drawn the ire of some of his colleagues in the House – who believe he has strayed from the party line when criticizing the Trump administration on such issues as Ukraine, Russia, and border security – he remains a popular figure in his district, where he has garnered a reputation of “showing up,” even in remote parts of a political jurisdiction the size of the state of Georgia.

When Hurd endorsed Gonzales in November, he did so as he called for the Republican Party “to start looking [more] like America.” A former CIA officer who had been thought of as a rising star in the GOP, Hurd has said he would like to help diversify the party and bring in more candidates of color.

The 23rd District is nearly 70 percent Latino, and Tony Gonzales reflects the district’s demographic makeup.

“I didn’t just endorse anybody,” Hurd said. “I endorsed a candidate who can win the general election. I actually think Tony is the epitome of the American dream.”

Even with a considerable funding advantage, Gonzales is likely to face a runoff election. The San Antonio resident has received about $400,000 in campaign contributions thus far. Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raul Reyes Jr., who owns a home construction business in Del Rio, stands a distant second with $135,000 in funds raised.

Also running are San Antonio residents Ben Van Winkle, a technology account manager; small business owner Darwin Boedeker; retired counterintelligence agent Burt Jones; Jeff McFarlin, who works in management at an oil and gas services company; and attorney Sharon Breckenridge Thomas, as well as Uvalde dentist Alma Arredondo-Lynch and Alia Ureste, a nurse and small business owner in El Paso.

A recently retired Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a cryptologist, Gonzales said his military background, belief in God, and family values fall in line with the purple District 23 that largely leans conservative on social issues.

“When you look at my background – young, Hispanic, conservative, Catholic, five children – all of that resonates with this district,” he said. “However you view yourself – Republican, Democrat, moderate, liberal, conservative – I think my bio resonates with this district.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.