Brandon Herrera Wants To Go From Firing Guns On YouTube To Representing Uvalde In Congress

"Gunfluencer" Brandon Herrera is trying to beat an incumbent in the Texas district. <span class="copyright">Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost, Photo: Getty Images</span>
"Gunfluencer" Brandon Herrera is trying to beat an incumbent in the Texas district. Illustration: Benjamin Currie/HuffPost, Photo: Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — Brandon Herrera is a 28-year-old YouTube gun influencer with more than 3.4 million subscribers and half a billion views. In one 17-minute video, Herrera, in a tight black T-shirt and backward baseball cap, reenacts the killing of President John F. Kennedy Jr. using a replica head that contains a condom’s worth of fake blood.

“That just feels real icky,” Herrera says in the video after blood spatters everywhere.

Herrera, aka The AK Guy, who manufactures guns as well as shoots them online, is also running in a primary Tuesday that could knock out a sitting member of Congress in a district that only two years ago saw a horrific mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Herrera has almost 500 videos on his YouTube channel, with titles ranging from “Testing the Gun That Killed Abraham Lincoln” to “SUPER CURSED GUN IMAGES,” “HORRIBLY CURSED GUN IMAGES” and “LITERALLY CURSED GUN IMAGES.” In a 2022 video that has almost 2 million views, Herrera tests out a submachine gun from Nazi Germany and goose steps to a marching song commonly associated with Nazi soldiers. (Herrera, who seems to be doing this all for the lolz, tells viewers if they don’t see anything wrong with a song about “a soldier missing a pretty girl at home,” they should “go ahead and hit that subscribe button.”)

And on Monday, Herrera, in jeans and wearing brown western boots, stepped out of a white Dodge Challenger with Oregon plates and strode into the Thirsty Horse Saloon, a bar in northern San Antonio, for a midday rally to kick off early voting.

Herrera is competing in an election Tuesday against Rep. Tony Gonzales, a moderate who defied the Republican Party on gun control and immigration, earning him a rebuke from the Texas GOP and this unusual primary that might end his career.

Herrera’s candidacy poses the strange question of whether a candidate whose entire persona is making viral content about guns is electable in a district that’s only moderately Republican and that saw one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history — and that’s also on edge from a surge in unlawful border crossings.

Herrera denied Gonzales, a 43-year-old veteran, an outright majority in a splintered March primary, triggering the two-person race for the nomination to face a Democrat. A Herrera win Tuesday would be bad for Gonzales and possibly worse for the GOP’s endangered House majority. The 23rd Congressional District in West Texas is a majority Latino swing seat normally held by moderates — not celebrity “gunfluencers” backed by Matt Gaetz, the rabble-rousing Florida Republican who was there campaigning with Herrera Monday at the Thirsty Horse.

Gonzales, a two-term incumbent who’s rubbed some of his Republican colleagues the wrong way in D.C. (he called Gaetz a “scumbag” on CNN last month) has raised more than three times as much as Herrera. But Herrera has a huge following of people who love guns and who love him, and it’s hard to predict how that might end up factoring into Tuesday’s election, especially with the anti-Gonzales vote now consolidated around Herrera.

Gonzales, a former master chef in the Navy, has seized on a crude joke Herrera made about veteran suicide. “I often think of putting a gun in my mouth … so I’m basically an honorary veteran,” Herrera (who, to be clear, is not an actual veteran) said on a podcast, a joke he’s claimed was taken out of context. Gonzales did not find it funny. “There’s parts of the country where that’s cute or funny, but it’s not cute or funny to a veteran who’s gone through this,” Gonzales told reporters after his campaign announced it was using the remark in an attack ad

Herrera has gotten on the radar of the pro-Israel lobby, which launched its own ad campaign against Herrera last week, saying he “glorifies Nazis and mocks the Holocaust,” according to Jewish Insider, which also reported that Herrera was a member of a group that celebrates the Confederacy and is registered to vote at an address in Fayetteville, North Carolina. 

Herrera tweeted in February 2021 that he was about to move to Texas, and he says now that he lives in San Antonio. Asked about his residency and the Challenger with out-of-state plates, Herrera’s campaign told me: “Ever heard of a rental car? The campaign is not available for comment.”

In a very brief interview at the Thirsty Horse, Herrera, who had none of his zany YouTuber energy in person, claimed Gonzales was afraid to engage with him on policy discussions. “It says a lot because Tony can’t attack me on policy,” said Herrera, who wore dark Ray Bans as he nursed a neon-yellow drink in a plastic cup. Herrera is bearded with a head of slicked-back slate hair, and he carries himself with the confidence of someone who does something on camera for a living. “All he can do is try to take me out of context or twist jokes, and it’s not working.”

A few minutes later, a woman with an icy blond bob and wearing a “Let’s go Brandon” shirt had two men show me out of the bar, saying the event had been “closed” to journalists.

Campaign signs along a stretch of U.S. 90 between San Antonio and Uvalde.
Campaign signs along a stretch of U.S. 90 between San Antonio and Uvalde. Liz Skalka/HuffPost

Herrera is here today mainly because Gonzales opposed the GOP’s border security bill earlier this year and voted with Democrats to pass the first gun control measures out of Congress in decades after a shooter in his district killed 19 children and two adults at an elementary school on May 24, 2022. The gun reform law became a watershed moment for Congress, which passed bipartisan legislation to close the “boyfriend loophole” and expand background checks — in large part because of what happened in Uvalde.

But for the people who may send Herrera to Congress, the vote was seen as caving in to Democrats on gun control, which is largely not up for debate, even after a horrific shooting.

“These politicians that came here [after the shooting] were just pushing [gun control] down their throats,” said Donna Williams, the elected clerk of Uvalde County who, as of last weekend, hadn’t decided who she would vote for Tuesday. Williams, who lives on 6 acres just outside of Uvalde, believes the shooting was a product of mental illness and not gun culture. 

More than gun rights, though, border security seems to be the biggest factor in this race. The 23rd District is huge and sparsely populated, extending from El Paso to San Antonio along the Mexico border. Voters here bring up the record number of illegal border crossings in the last year and the phenomenon of “bailouts,” when migrants who are on the run from police literally bail from a vehicle and cause dangerous high-speed chases. 

“They’ll just run and hide, and sometimes the cops find them and sometimes they don’t,” said a business owner from Hondo, a small city halfway between San Antonio and Uvalde. “Our kids can’t be outside because you never know who’s outside.”

Williams feels safest carrying a gun at all times on her property. “They’re breaking into homes, breaking down fences … other states don’t really see what we’re going through.”

Gonzales, whose campaign advertises his endorsement from the union representing U.S. Border Patrol agents, has stood by his vote against the House Republicans’ border bill, which he argued would close the door to asylum seekers. Gonzales called the bill — spearheaded by another Texan, hard-liner Chip Roy — “un-Christian” and “anti-immigrant” in its approach to securing the border with Mexico.

Herrera, meanwhile, is a Second Amendment absolutist and is clear about where he stands on tactics to secure the border and pare back immigration. He says he’ll “block any spending bills that do not include finishing the wall, returning to the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, and ending the phony asylum claim racket.”

At left, Brandon Herrera speaks with a supporter at San Antonio's Thirsty Horse Saloon. At right, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida (far right) mingles before the event at the bar.
At left, Brandon Herrera speaks with a supporter at San Antonio's Thirsty Horse Saloon. At right, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida (far right) mingles before the event at the bar. Liz Skalka/HuffPost

The few people I talked to at Herrera’s event before getting kicked out were generally familiar with the concept of a YouTuber but not Herrera’s content specifically.

Ben Taylor, a 71-year-old retiree, described it as “edgy” and “not always in the best taste” — and it’s easy to see how someone who is 71 wouldn’t necessarily be into a video of Herrera doing a parody of an Eminem song with other “guntubers” because he got kicked off Instagram or shooting an AR-50, which, to most of us, is just a very big gun.

Taylor was nonetheless disappointed with Gonzales and concerned about border security and the strain that an influx of new people will have on natural resources, especially the water supply. “I think it says something that someone my age is going to vote for Brandon over Tony,” he said.

Meanwhile, a 37-year-old voter named Preston, who didn’t want to share his last name, said he likes that Herrera, a Gen Zer, “isn’t fossilized.”

Herrera, ready after two minutes to boot-scoot himself away from our conversation, said it should tell the GOP establishment something that it’s been unable to blunt his momentum. 

“It’s not moving the needle the way they want it to, and people are sick of it,” he said, his yellow drink sweating in the midday Texas heat. “Money doesn’t have as much power in politics in the social media age as they would like.”