WOOSTER, Ohio — Rep. Anthony Gonzalez isn't surprised that his political career is on the line after he and nine other Republicans voted to impeach Donald Trump last month for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot.
The vote not only might have cost Gonzalez his House seat from Ohio; it also all but erased his chances to run for an open Senate seat next year. But he's still fighting for himself and the future of his party.
"I've never thrown in the towel in anything," Gonzalez said in his first interview with a major national news organization since he joined nine other House Republicans in voting to impeach. "So I don't know why I'd start."
Gonzalez, speaking a few days before Trump's Senate impeachment trial begins, said that he has been hearing from all sides of the debate back home, including from constituents — some angry, others delighted — at a tele-town hall on Thursday.
He faces a backlash like the other Republicans who voted to impeach — censure from local or state parties, potential or already announced primary challengers and pushback from national Republicans close to Trump. On the more extreme side, Gonzalez said, he has been in touch with local law enforcement officials and the FBI about his family's safety.
NBC News found a mixed view of Gonzalez's vote in conversations with voters in his northeast Ohio district, which went solidly for Trump last fall.
"I'm not an idiot," Gonzalez said. "I understand what this vote means and what it could potentially mean for my political career.
"I had to ask myself, in this moment, what do I believe happened?" he added. "And what do I believe the right vote is, not just in this moment, but for all of American history? Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now, what are people going to say about Jan. 6th?"
For him, the answer is "very clear."
"Over the long arc of history," he said, "I believe that this is the right vote, and I believe it sends the right message to all future presidents and anybody who considers taking the Oval Office."
Why he did it
Gonzalez, 36, is in his a second term in the House. His public story began more than 15 years ago, when he starred as a wide receiver at Ohio State University. He was a first-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts and had a couple of productive seasons before injuries began to take over. In 2012, an ESPN report said Gonzalez's "injury history rivals or exceeds that of any other NFL player in recent years."
He would soon begin the second stage of his professional life, earning a master's degree from Stanford University before leading a tech and education company. He first ran for office in the 2018 cycle and was the rare GOP candidate to beat a Trump-backed opponent in a primary.
He rarely crossed Trump during his first years in Congress. But recently, there have been some significant breaks. He voted for the National Defense Authorization Act, which Trump opposed, and he then voted to override Trump's veto. He also accused Trump of lying or misleading the public about the bipartisan Covid-19 relief bill he toyed with vetoing.
Then Gonzalez voted to accept Pennsylvania's and Arizona's electors after the Capitol riot and voted to impeach Trump days later, saying in a statement that Trump "helped organize and incite a mob that attacked the United States Congress" and "abandoned his post" during the riot.
Gonzalez said he weighed Trump's efforts to overturn the election after the Electoral College certification in December and the "Stop the Steal" rally, as well as his comments and his actions — or inaction — when the Capitol was being attacked.
"I consider it an unconstitutional attempt by a sitting president to overthrow an election and re-install himself as president," Gonzalez said. "That's the sort of thing that happens in Third World countries. That's the sort of thing that we, all Americans, should passionately object to."
If anything pushed him firmly into the pro-impeachment camp, it was Trump's conduct once the assault began. Trump, he said, had a responsibility to end the violence "as quickly as humanly possible." Instead, it took hours "before we got any kind of response from the president to calm the situation down."
Ohio is an increasingly GOP state that now features an open Senate seat in 2022 with the retirement of Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Gonzalez would have been considered a contender, but his prospects were written off after his impeachment vote.
"Yeah, he would have been included in the mix," said Doug Deekan, chair of the Wayne County GOP. "But I daresay that that vote damaged him with the base.
"In a Republican primary, when you got that vote, the ink's still fresh on it, the ink's still damp on a page, that's going to hurt you," Deekan added. "And that's just how it is."
A senior congressional aide put Gonzalez's prospects in starker terms. "If Gonzalez decides to run for Senate, he's dead on arrival," the aide said.
Gonzalez said he is "very, very unlikely to get into that race."
'A decided surprise'
Ohio's 16th Congressional District spans the suburbs west of Cleveland south through Wooster and Wayne County and east to Portage County. Its easternmost edge begins just blocks from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Trump won the district by 15 points in November, and a drive through its western half found dozens of Trump signs and flags still displayed on snow-covered lawns. Gonzalez carried the district by more than 26 points.
Still, he has faced pushback from local Republicans still loyal to Trump.
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Amanda Suffecool, chair of the Portage County GOP, wrote in a letter that the local party believes "your vote may have been influenced by media spin that is so prevalent in today's society" and "does not represent the constituency of Portage County. ... Many of our residents have used stronger words for you, such as traitor or turncoat."
Suffecool said in an interview that Gonzalez's vote against Trump was "a decided surprise."
"It was like, 'What is he thinking?'" she said. "When Ohio was so firmly for Donald Trump, that's his responsibility, as far as I'm concerned. He needs to represent his constituents."
A potential primary opponent next year is Christina Hagan, the former state representative who ran against him in 2018 with Trump's backing. She says she's waiting for the release of a new Ohio congressional map before making any decisions.
"I have never seen a greater amount of backlash for any one single vote taken by any one single member of our Republican congressional delegation in Ohio," Hagan said.
Jay Ratzel, 70, a Republican voter from Wooster, said he felt that the impeachment was wrong and that Trump should be left alone now that he's out of office. Gonzalez, he said, is "siding with the Democrats because they're in power."
But for Dillard Lester, a left-leaning resident of Medina, Gonzalez's decision to impeach was "pretty brave." He might vote for Gonzalez next year, "assuming he can get through a primary coming up."
"I didn't vote for him before," Lester said. "But I have considered voting for him just to reward him for it."
As far as the direction the GOP heads in now, Gonzalez said he thinks "there's a lot left in this story."
"I don't think what is being portrayed today of ... the Republican Party going forward is what we're going to see two and four years from now," he said. He said he believes Republicans can embrace Trump's policies while being "unequivocal in denouncing the extremism."
"That's where I hope we go, because I think that is something that will resonate across the country," he said. "If we play footsie with some of these extremist movements, it will be to our detriment. But more importantly, it'll be to the detriment of the country."