Uvalde May End Up With a Representative Who’s a Gun Influencer

On March 5, in the election for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, the incumbent Rep. Tony Gonzales was forced into a runoff. Gonzales, whose majority-Hispanic district includes Uvalde, where 19 children and two adults died in a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022, ceded nearly 25 percent of the vote to an influencer known as the AK Guy.

The 28-year-old, Brandon Herrera, celebrated by posting a video on his YouTube channel.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we got ’em,” he said.

Herrera, a man who makes his living from YouTube, now stands a chance of winning the Republican nomination for the state’s geographically largest district.

Herrera may be at a disadvantage—Gonzales received 45 percent of the vote in the primary, has the support of the Texas governor and the Republican congressional leadership in D.C., and has raised significantly more in fundraising—but he does have the backing of pro-gun figures in an extremely pro-gun state. Rep. Matt Gaetz backs Herrera, as does the Republican Party of Texas, which censured Gonzales over some aisle-crossing votes, including one in favor of expanded background checks and a measure closing the “boyfriend loophole” for gun purchases—choices he made after the Uvalde shooting occurred in his district. And the YouTuber, who boasts 3.4 million subscribers as of this writing and who also sells firearms, has some apparently very committed fans.

It seems that Herrera’s backers hope that the specific kind of edgy comedy that has made him popular with explosives-obsessed young internet users on YouTube will translate into a kind of populist charisma, like a youthful, internet-native version of Trump with a Texas twist. (Despite his everything-is-bigger swagger, Herrera was neither born nor bred in Texas; he moved to the state from North Carolina in 2021 to “escape COVID regulations,” as he told the publication the Texan.)

The 23rd Congressional District includes most of the state’s Mexican border and leans comfortably but not dramatically Republican. Herrera, as one might expect, is running on a gun-rights platform, with a secondary emphasis on hard-line immigration policies. But this matchup is more one of personalities: a Republican making appeals for moderate and reasonable leadership, and a swearing, offensive figure who memed his way through the campaign. On Tuesday, voters will decide if the internet bombast holds real-world appeal.

Herrera’s campaign, to be clear, is not 100 percent online: The candidate claims to have held more than 60 in-person campaign events with voters. He ran TV ads and put out mailers, accusing his opponent of being a RINO. (Gonzales has rejected being characterized as a moderate, asserting that he is solidly conservative.)

And Herrera is not presenting two different personalities: His campaign persona stays true to his internet persona. He shows Vivek Ramaswamy guns. He holds events with Kyle Rittenhouse, who at 17 killed two men at a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was acquitted on charges of homicide in 2021, and has since become a celebrity among very online right-wingers. (“If you believe Kyle did nothing wrong, hit that button and subscribe,” Herrera says in one video.) He wears shirts that read “Make America Texas Again” and has auctioned off a gun for donations. His campaign slogan is “Let’s Go Brandon.” And he has rallied his supporters to boost his campaign by trolling his rival.

“We are actively bullying a sitting congressman,” he proclaims with delight in one YouTube video.

Herrera presents himself, above all, as a voice for his YouTube community, the kind of young men who think of drinking beer and firing guns as not only an ideal afternoon but also the cure for America’s cultural ills. These are the young men of GunTube, as some call it. But in that large ecosystem, built primarily around men shooting different guns at different things, Herrera stands apart from much of the rest—edgier, funnier, meaner.

With his tight military-coded T-shirts, trimmed beard, and long and well-groomed hair, Herrera aims to look like an action star. His build and facial hair lend him the appearance of being older than he is, allowing him to credibly convey military experience with the background of someone who’s been making YouTube videos since the sixth grade. (Herrera has not served.) He addresses his viewers from a gaming chair, and his videos are slickly produced—one, celebrating his apparently long-awaited development of an AK-47 “scale[d] up to the insanely large .50 BMG,” was introduced with studio-quality opening credits (“Music by my buddy’s sister”; “Made possible by autism”). He signs on to every video by greeting his “sexy Youtube mother lovers.” And he possesses the kind of comedic timing and delivery common among millennial social media stars.

Mostly, Herrera, like every other GunTuber, shoots things. Sometimes he tests antique guns or particularly powerful military weapons or tries to re-create famous shootings. (This he calls “demonetized MythBusters.”) He has an affinity for firing at White Claws, his drink of choice. (Sometimes he even uses the cans of hard seltzer as ammo.)

There’s a Jackass element to his content, but without the same levels of personal endangerment. Herrera may not produce PSA-like safety warnings, as many other GunTubers do (“There’s nothing more serious than gun safety,” a septuagenarian, “kid-friendly” YouTuber with more than double Herrera’s subscribers says in one video), but he does take reasonable precautions in executing his stunts. He also regularly mocks people who are reckless with their firearm handling. The edginess comes instead from his commentary.

In one video, in which six of his giggling crew watch him fire a Soviet rocket launcher, he quips he was testing it on a dummy, “as homeless people are frowned upon and, as it turns out, illegal to shoot at.” He tells sex jokes; someone makes a crack about the Challenger space shuttle. In another video, after Herrera shoots a water jug as a way of “testing Joe Rogan’s JFK bullet theory,” he crows delightedly that he “absolutely butt-f—ed this water jug.” It’s pure millennial edgelord material.

Herrera doesn’t just blow things up, though. He compiles videos of “the worst internet gun fails.” (“Homeboy was about 30 degrees from making a serious fucky-wucky and having to get in the forever box.”) He shares gun memes—memes are a staple of all his content. He walks his viewers through the latest gun-world controversy. He explains the weapons being used in current wars, discusses gun laws, and describes firearm mechanics. He has a whole series of short clips joking that men who like AR-style (as opposed to AK-style) rifles are effeminate and overly fastidious. He even does movie reviews. (He liked Civil War and has speculated that some of the characters in it were inspired by him and his fellow GunTubers.) He is, in other words, an absolute pro at churning out content.

Other popular GunTube figures, some of whom have significantly larger followings than Herrera’s, don’t typically exhibit the same showmanship. Some have their own themes, such as one popular account that focuses on analyzing shootings involving law enforcement. Other channels have more of an emphasis on survivalism and home protection or produce dry educational videos. Herrera’s is mostly just about having fun.

There is a cohort of San Antonio–based GunTubers who share Herrera’s sensibilities. Matt Carriker, the man behind the DemolitionRanch YouTube channel, has 11.5 million subscribers. His channel is more varied than Herrera’s—he sometimes microwaves random things, for example—and he’s a bit more family-oriented than Herrera, but the two share a joy of blowing things up in gimmicky ways. These GunTubers seem to largely support one another, and even though Carriker’s account boasts far more subscribers than Herrera’s does, he puts out content backing Herrera’s campaign.

But Herrera, with his focus on internet culture, also stands apart from his peers for his political aspirations. And that comes through in his videos. In one, titled “I Crashed an Anti-Gun Protest,” he tries to make protesters look dumb and ill-informed, with gotcha questions about background checks. In “We Got Kicked Out of a Gun Buyback,” he tries to buy the guns from people waiting in line to sell theirs to the state. As he waits for sellers, he “educates” his viewers on the futility of buybacks, mournfully noting, “It feels like this is a giant line to euthanize kittens.”

The thing about being an edgelord, though, is that outside the context of whatever internet subcommunity in which the person resides, the content is off-putting. Herrera’s opponent knows this. In April, Gonzales pointed to a video Herrera had made that featured Nazi imagery and jokes. In the video, in which he and a friend test out a submachine gun developed in Nazi Germany, Herrera goose-steps to a German marching song in a playful black-and-white montage. He jokes, “If you’re one of the few people out there that realizes there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the song we just used and it’s a bunch of soldiers singing about a pretty girl they miss at home, go ahead and hit that subscribe button.” At another point, his friend asks him, in a German accent, if he’s hiding any White Claws under his floorboards. “The best way I know how to make you guys learn about history is to make really fucked-up jokes about it,” Herrera says in explanation.

In an interview on CNN, Gonzales referred to Herrera as a “known neo-Nazi,” a description based, it seems, solely on the content of this video. Gonzales, who is a veteran, has also run ads targeting Herrera’s other jokes, including one clip in which Herrera quipped, “I often think about putting a gun in my mouth, so I’m basically an honorary veteran.”

The criticism backfired for Gonzales—during his CNN appearance, he also called other members of the far-right flank of the party “scumbags” and accused them of being like the KKK, a characterization that earned him serious backlash from conservative media. But that didn’t dissuade his big donors: In the aftermath of the interview, a group associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in response to the Nazi jokes, launched ads against Herrera. And even as Matt Gaetz, whom Gonzales singled out in his rant, chastised him for his “unhinged outbursts,” House Speaker Mike Johnson traveled to Texas in April to campaign on Gonzales’ behalf.

“This is ground zero of a Republican Party civil war, where the speaker of the House is flying down to campaign for my opponent because he’s worried about his job,” Herrera says in an April 27 video. “That’s a huge impact for one lowly random gunsmith.”

But according to Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, the national-level attention is not just a matter of establishment Republicans protecting their own. Jones says that congressional Republicans have realized that Herrera would be a huge liability should he win the runoff, in large part because of the Uvalde massacre.

Voters from the city of Uvalde may not make the difference in this election. But images and coverage of the massacre flooded the entire region and proved highly affecting, particularly among women. The Uvalde gunman used an assault rifle; Herrera is known as the AK Guy. Herrera wants to block all efforts at gun control; gun control measures, which are popular even in Texas, could have averted the disaster. (According to Jones, polling shows the Texas GOP to be out of step with the majority of Texans on gun control.)

So, should Herrera win, a district that ought to be a lock for Republicans would suddenly come into play for Democrats. And that would be a problem during an election cycle in which Republicans are trying to hold on to a slim majority in the House.

“Even someone as extreme and flawed as Herrera would still likely have a good chance of victory in November,” Jones said. “But the Uvalde issue would transform Herrera into a significant liability.”

This is why, even though Gonzales is, in Jones’ words, “arguably the least conservative member of the Texas GOP delegation in the U.S. House,” Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, two men who could never be mistaken for moderates, have campaigned on the ground for him.

According to Jones, Gonzales is in a good spot going into the runoff. Abbott’s and Patrick’s support likely makes a difference, as does the significant spending by the national GOP. But there’s a wild-card factor: A runoff election like Tuesday’s has no other big races on the ballot to drive turnout.

“If turnout drops precipitously and skews toward the most conservative activists, Gonzales could find himself in trouble,” Jones said.

If Herrera were to win, the Republican Party will be forced to pitch a candidate in November who makes Holocaust jokes, trolls his fellow Republicans, and vows to make life difficult for his party’s leadership. It’s no wonder leading Republicans have come out for his rival.

“They already have Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert,” Jones said. “Do they really need another?”