Ahead of next Tuesday’s closely watched primary in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, a progressive group is spending $50,000 on ads attacking Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) over the support his reelection campaign is getting from GOP megadonor and fossil fuel magnate Charles Koch, HuffPost has learned.
A super PAC founded by Koch told the Federal Election Commission last week it spent $34,000 to support Cuellar, who is facing a tough primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney backed by allies of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). The spending marked the first time Americans for Prosperity Action campaigned for a congressional Democrat.
To counter that, the progressive Working Families Party plans to air at least 400 30-second spots highlighting Cuellar’s votes with Republicans on cable networks in Laredo, the district’s largest city, where the incumbent has his headquarters. As part of the push, nonprofit Texas Organizing Project and labor unions Communications Workers of America and SEIU Texas will increase field canvassing and phone banking.
“We want his expenditure to be a black eye,” Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party, told HuffPost by phone Friday night. “Koch money doesn’t have a place at all in a Democratic primary.”
The ad buy amplifies the symbolism of a primary fight that progressives hoped to make a referendum on the state of climate politics in the Democratic Party. At just the moment when scientists say developed countries like the United States need to scale back fossil fuel production and use at an unprecedented rate, Koch, who spent countless millions propping up candidates and think tanks that promoted the debunked theory that climate science was uncertain about the warming effect of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, is looking to expand his influence over Democrats.
The mostly-Hispanic district is deep in oil country, stretching southwest from San Antonio to the Mexican border. The industry has greased the political machine Cuellar, 64, built over his seven terms in office. Throughout his career, oil and gas donors contributed more than $852,000, according to filings collected by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, prompting one newspaper to dub Cuellar “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.”
Once Cisneros started gaining high-profile national backers over her support for the Green New Deal, a movement to phase out fossil fuels and expand the social safety net, the industry sent in the cavalry. Oil and gas political action committees have spent $116,000 on Cuellar’s campaign since 2019, while fossil fuel-dependent utilities pitched in $28,500.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does not disclose its donors but spent years funding climate misinformation campaigns, rolled out its own 30-second TV ad in Spanish promoting Cuellar’s record and reported its plans to spend $200,000 supporting his reelection.
In response, Cisneros supporters ramped up their efforts, hoping enough firepower could deliver the kind of seismic upset that emanated from Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise 2018 defeat of former Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.
Sunrise Movement, the influential youth campaigners whose protests made the Green New Deal a household name, marshalled its thousands of supporters, including hundreds of Spanish speakers, to staff phone banks and knock on doors on Cisneros’s behalf.
Though Cuellar won support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and racked up hundreds of local endorsements, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Julian Castro have backed Cisneros, along with the Texas AFL-CIO.
The David vs. Goliath campaign narrative attracted glowing national media coverage. The headlines of profiles in Mothers Jones and Vogue wondered whether the 26-year-old daughter of migrant farmers would vault to the superstar heights of Ocasio-Cortez, whose undeniable political talent has already spurred open calls for a presidential run five years before she’s constitutionally eligible. Vice went as far as to suggest Cisneros was “poised to oust” Cuellar, despite zero public polling to indicate that the insurgent challenger’s message was swaying voters.
Local media struck a more skeptical tone. Texas Monthly relayed critiques that Cisneros “seemed to be running a prepackaged campaign of the sort that the left wing of the party might run in, say, Austin or New York.” The Texas Observer surmised that Cisneros was utterly outmatched by a powerful and ruthless incumbent who trounced a liberal opponent before.
“I question the value of trying to dislodge him with so much effort being put into this. What happens when the progressive movement loses badly?”
One climate-focused Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating political allies, said progressives were taking too risky a bet pouring so many resources into Cisneros’s race.
“We all know Cuellar has a dismal record, but at the same time, he has a very strong record of political constituent services in his district, and he’s very well known,” said the operative, who is unaligned in the race. “I question the value of trying to dislodge him with so much effort being put into this. What happens when the progressive movement loses badly?”
The eleventh-hour cable ads didn’t seem to spook Cuellar’s campaign, which accused the national groups of being “giant hypocrites.”
“They’re outside-the-district third parties running an ad criticizing an outside-the-district third party, and they don’t see the irony in that,” Colin Strother, a spokesman for Cuellar, said by phone Friday.
With early voting already underway, he echoed Pelosi, who last week came to Laredo and said she “assumes that Henry will win.”
“Their ground game idea fell flat, and nothing else they’ve done has worked,” Strother said. “I think somebody over there has read ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu too many times and thinks if they attack our strengths, they’re going to flip the numbers around on this.”