Bernie Sanders Endorses Progressive Challenger In Key Texas Primary

Sanders had previously held off on endorsing Jessica Cisneros, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar from the left.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros’ primary challenge against conservative Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) on Wednesday, lending additional heft to the insurgent in one of the most contentious House primaries of the election cycle.

Sanders, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced his support for Cisneros as part of a broader slate of congressional endorsements released Wednesday. He is backing San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez in an open Democratic House primary in California, as well as the reelections of Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Peter Welch (Vt.), and Mark Pocan (Wis.).

“This is the most important election in our lifetime and I’m proud there are so many candidates running for Congress who understand that real change comes from the bottom on up, not the top on down,” Sanders said in a statement. “They’re all strong advocates for real change and together we will build a movement to transform this nation so that it works for all our people.”

Democrat Jessica Cisneros campaigns for a House seat in Laredo, Texas, on Oct. 8, 2019.
Democrat Jessica Cisneros campaigns for a House seat in Laredo, Texas, on Oct. 8, 2019.
Veronica Cardenas / Reuters

Cisneros, however, is the only candidate on the list who is challenging an incumbent Democrat. Sanders’ previous decision not to get involved in her race had drawn criticism from some progressive activists in December. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a rival of Sanders’ for the Democratic presidential nomination, endorsed Cisneros in September; Ocasio-Cortez, who has endorsed Sanders, joined her in October.

Justice Democrats, the left-wing group founded by Sanders 2016 alumni that recruited Cisneros, applauded the decision.

“We’re proud she’s received this endorsement from Bernie who has dedicated his career to fighting for working families and needs fighters like Jessica in Congress to enact a bold agenda,” said Alexandra Rojas, Justice Democrats’ executive director, in a statement.

Cisneros welcomed the backing of Sanders, who she said is “running a grassroots campaign to fight for working people, not big corporate donors.”

Neither Cisneros nor Justice Democrats has endorsed in the Democratic presidential primary. (Justice Democrats has, however, initiated a $500,000 digital ad campaign blasting former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.) The other candidates on Sanders’ list are either backing him or have not announced presidential endorsements, save for Pressley, who is backing Warren.

If elected, Cisneros, 26, would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She is running on a similar platform to Sanders, promising to fight for “Medicare for All,” a Green New Deal and tuition-free college.

Most importantly, Cisneros casts herself as a better representative than Cuellar of the residents of Texas’ 28th Congressional District, an impoverished, predominantly Latino and heavily Democratic swath of South Texas that stretches from the San Antonio area down to the border with Mexico.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), left, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who have both endorsed Jessica Cisneros, want to make Congress more receptive to their agenda.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), left, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who have both endorsed Jessica Cisneros, want to make Congress more receptive to their agenda.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Cuellar, who has strong ties to Texas Republicans like former Gov. Rick Perry, has a record of right-leaning stances on abortion rights, gun regulation and immigration that put him far outside the Democratic mainstream. He spoke approvingly of President Donald Trump’s killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in early January; his campaign spokesman accused Cisneros of “standing with Iran” for criticizing the move.

It’s all part of what makes Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” according to Cisneros.

For its part, Cuellar’s campaign maintains that his moderate stances and penchant for bipartisan collaboration are a better fit for the rural district where guns, the oil industry and border enforcement are part of the local culture and economy.

The Texas congressional primary is on the same day as the presidential primary ― Super Tuesday, March 3. It is also an open primary, which could benefit Cuellar since Republicans and independents can choose to cast ballots on his behalf.

Cisneros has nonetheless raised a significant amount of money for a primary challenger, raising over $500,000 in the final quarter of 2019 alone. And she boasts a long list of mainstream liberal and Democratic endorsements, including from the deep-pocketed pro-choice groups NARAL Pro-Choice America and EMILY’s List.

The reason for the timing of Sanders’ decision is unclear, but it came after Cisneros got another big push. The Texas AFL-CIO, which is the state’s largest federation of labor unions, backed Cisneros over the weekend, opening the door to additional influence and financial resources.

Sanders’ rival Warren also expanded her list of endorsements on Tuesday. The list of new candidates she is supporting include attorney Mondaire Jones, a progressive running for an open seat in New York who would be Congress’ first openly gay black man.

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