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Donald Trump makes last-minute pitches for Tony Gonzales, Ronny Jackson in Texas congressional runoffs

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Former White House doctor Ronny Jackson, left, and Tony Gonzales both received a push from President Donald Trump at a tele-town hall Monday evening. Texas Tribune

President Donald Trump made a late push Monday night for two candidates he has endorsed in hotly contested Republican primary runoffs in Texas.

With hours until polls open, Trump joined tele-town halls for Tony Gonzales and Ronny Jackson, who are vying for the nominations to replace retiring Reps. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, respectively. Hurd's seat is one of Democrats' top pickup opportunities nationwide, while Thornberry's is one of the reddest in the country — and gives Trump the opportunity to install a loyal ally in Jackson, the former White House doctor.

Both runoffs have been dramatic to the end. In Hurd's district, Trump endorsed Gonzales, a former Navy cryptologist favored by the outgoing incumbent and national GOP, earlier this month, three days after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, shook up the runoff by backing Gonzales' rival, Raul Reyes.

"He's a conservative guy," Trump said of Gonzales, "but he's a conservative guy that's gonna win — because we have to win, and you know, that's a very important element of it. That's one of the reasons I'm doing this. I studied it very closely. We need somebody that's gonna beat their candidate, and that candidate can absolutely be beaten."

On the call, Trump trained his fire on the Democratic nominee for the seat, Gina Ortiz Jones. Trump tied Jones to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, referring to Jones as "a Pelosi candidate, a Pelosi special, as liberal as can be."

The runoff between Gonzales and Reyes has been consumed lately by the drama over Cruz and Trump splitting their endorsements. As part of Cruz's efforts to keep Trump from endorsing Gonzales, he pointed the president to comments that Gonzales made in late September saying he had not "fully developed a position" on the House's Trump impeachment inquiry, which was in its early stages then.

Less than an hour before Trump did the call with Gonzales, Cruz appeared on a tele-town hall with Reyes. During a question-and-answer period, Cruz confirmed reports he sought to keep Trump from backing Gonzales.

"I did talk to the president," Cruz said. "Actually he called me on a different matter and I told him that he should not get involved in this race, not endorse the way he's endorsed."

"At the end of the day, the president followed different advice, but it was not advice that was looking for who the strong conservative was in the race and I think that was unfortunate," Cruz added, suggesting Trump had been swayed by Gonzales' boosters in House leadership.

While Cruz did not mention Gonzales during the town hall, he alluded multiple times to Republicans who were insufficiently defensive of Trump amid the House impeachment process last year.

In a statement, a Jones spokesperson said both candidates in the runoff are "Trump-style Republicans who have pledged to strip away health care while San Antonio native and Iraq War veteran Gina Ortiz Jones will protect it for Texans with pre-existing conditions."

"She is well-equipped to defeat either of them in a district President Trump lost and will lose again," said the spokesperson, Sharon Yang.

Earlier Monday evening, Trump was addressing voters in Thornberry's 13th District, lavishing praise on Jackson, who he has supported for the seat since the start of the runoff.

"He's been with us from the beginning," Trump said. "This is the kind of people we need coming to Washington help us. He's loyal, he's brave, he's a leader, and he'll never let the people of Texas down."

Trump has gone all in for Jackson and Gonzales in the closing hours of their runoffs, also recording robocalls for each that went out Monday. In the robocall for Gonzales, Trump tells voters that "Tony will work for you in Congress, and by working for you, he's working for me."

Earlier Monday, too, Trump's campaign gave another gift to Gonzales by sending a cease-and-desist letter to Reyes objecting to a recent mailer from his featuring the president's image.

The two runoffs have been contentious, though the one for Thornberry's seat tops the list of heated races on the ballot Tuesday. Jackson and his Thornberry-backed opponent, Josh Winegarner, have brawled for weeks over their roots in the district, Winegarner's record as an agriculture lobbyist and the controversy that sank Jackson's 2018 nomination to be Trump's veteran affairs secretary.