Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar Survives Second Progressive Primary Challenge

Jessica Cisneros, an attorney, highlighted Cuellar’s opposition to abortion rights and the persistence of poverty in South Texas.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who was backed by House Democratic leaders, argued that his social conservatism is a good fit for the voters of Texas' 28th Congressional District.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who was backed by House Democratic leaders, argued that his social conservatism is a good fit for the voters of Texas' 28th Congressional District.
Eric Gay/Associated Press

LAREDO, Texas — Nearly a month after voting ended, Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last House Democrat opposed to abortion rights, officially clinched the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 28th Congressional District.

For the second election cycle in a row, Cuellar defeated progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros. The Associated Press called the race on Tuesday.

After an initial canvass of ballots cast, Cuellar led Cisneros by 281 votes, prompting him to declare victory.

Cisneros exercised her right to demand a recount at her campaign’s expense.

But the recount, which concluded on Tuesday, increased Cuellar’s lead by a few votes, according to the Texas Democratic Party.

Cuellar “was someone who national groups targeted, but who consistently held that he was a good member for that district,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin. “At the end of the day, when you’ve run successfully in a district multiple times, you know where to turn voters out.”

The outcome is a win for House Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who stood by Cuellar despite pressure from Cisneros and other progressives to drop him. Party leaders evidently believed Cuellar’s argument that a socially conservative nominee is the best bet against a Republican in Texas’ 28th, which snakes from San Antonio to Laredo and points southeast along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Cuellar is set to face the Republican nominee, Cassy Garcia, who is a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — and the resources of a national Republican Party determined to consolidate former President Donald Trump’s gains in South Texas. Hillary Clinton bested Trump in Texas’ 28th by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016, but Joe Biden defeated him there by just four points in 2020.

Redistricting in 2021 made the seat slightly more Democratic. Biden would have won in the new boundaries by 7 percentage points ― giving the seat a Democratic tilt, but not one that is insurmountable for Republicans during a likely GOP wave year.

“I would ask anybody: Which is more important — to have a pro-life Democrat or to have an anti-abortion Republican?” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said at a rally in support of Cuellar in San Antonio in early May. “Because come November, that could very well be the choice in this district.”

But Cuellar’s victory is also a major disappointment for progressives who were hoping to get rid of him.

Cuellar, 66, is a longtime ally of the fossil fuel industry and the National Rifle Association. He inspires contempt on the left — from climate activists to labor unions, pro-choice groups to pro-Palestine advocates — more than any other Democrat in the House of Representatives. Among other recent strikes against him, Cuellar was the only Democrat to vote against both the PRO Act bill to expand union rights and the Women’s Health Protection Act to codify a federal right to abortion access.

As a result, Cisneros’ second challenge against Cuellar, which came to a close on May 24 — her 29th birthday — became yet another expensive proxy battle between interest groups with different visions for the Democratic Party. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s super PAC spent over $1.8 million to reelect Cuellar, and Mainstream Democrats, a centrist super PAC funded in significant part by billionaire LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, kicked in nearly $800,000 on his behalf.

On the other side, super PACs tied to the pro-choice group EMILY’s List, the Working Families Party, and Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that recruited Cisneros to run, spent more than $1.5 million supporting Cisneros.

Cisneros got a jolt of momentum in January when the FBI raided Cuellar’s home in Laredo as part of a federal probe reportedly associated with Azerbaijan’s influence peddling in Congress. She ended up trailing Cuellar by just two percentage points during the first round of primary voting on March 1. The presence of a third Democrat — Tannya Benavides, a former educator who later endorsed Cisneros — prevented Cuellar from obtaining an outright majority on the first ballot, prompting the May 24 runoff election.

Jessica Cisneros took advantage of voters' fears about a forthcoming Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights, as well as frustrations in Laredo over a tap water crisis.
Jessica Cisneros took advantage of voters' fears about a forthcoming Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights, as well as frustrations in Laredo over a tap water crisis.
Eric Gay/Associated Press

The political winds again broke Cisneros’ way when a draft of a Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked at the beginning of May. The announcement increased the salience of a key area of contrast between Cisneros, who is pro-choice, and Cuellar, who opposes legalizing abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the health of the pregnant person.

“With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk,” Cisneros declared.

Locally, Cisneros also made the case that Cuellar’s seniority and the federal funds he helped secure through his seat on the House Appropriations Committee had not adequately raised living standards in Laredo. She singled out the city’s tap water crisis as a reflection of the shortcomings of a political class led by Cuellar.

Voters supporting Cisneros in Laredo’s less prosperous South Side told HuffPost that they were backing her in the hopes of bringing change to the region’s political culture and economy.

“It’s just hard for low-income people, especially on the South Side,” said Christian Aviles, a trucking company dispatcher who opposes abortion rights but still voted for Cisneros. “After all these years, I think there’s not enough being done.”

But Cuellar’s allies worked to muddy the waters on reproductive rights. Mainstream Democrats funded an ad claiming Cuellar would protect abortion rights. Unknown entities sympathetic to Cuellar also funded a billboard and a mock newspaper falsely claiming that Cisneros’ romantic relationship with her former schoolteacher had derailed the educator’s subsequent marriage.

And in a low-turnout runoff, Cuellar was able to count on the support of Laredo’s generally older, socially conservative voters worried that Cisneros was insufficiently supportive of border enforcement and capitalism.

Cuellar has “done a good job,” said Alejandro Vela Jr., who runs an engine repair business with his father on Laredo’s South Side. “You see the situation of illegal aliens coming? You need somebody — you don’t want to cut border patrol.”

Vela voted for Barack Obama twice, then voted for Trump twice. He said he would vote for the Republican nominee if Cisneros won the primary.

HuffPost asked Vela whether he thought Cisneros would be too dovish on border policy.

“Yes,” Vela replied before gesturing toward his father, who had accompanied him to vote. “She’s a socialist — everything my dad went to fight against in Vietnam.”

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