Conservative Texas Democrat Survives Progressive Primary Challenge

Rep. Henry Cuellar's reelection is "a victory for the status quo," according to a local politics expert.

LAREDO, Texas ― Progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros came up short in her campaign to unseat conservative Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas, disappointing an array of liberal groups and activists who had rallied behind her.

Cuellar defeated Cisneros by 3.6 percentage points. The narrow margin of Cuellar’s victory, which prevented the race from being called on Tuesday evening, is a source of comfort for a progressive movement whose chances many observers had written off.

Addressing supporters late Tuesday night in a beer garden before the results were final, Cisneros celebrated the strong showing, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

“Even though we still don’t have full results yet, one thing is clear: Our movement was victorious tonight. And that’s because this fight has always been about an opportunity to prove how one of us, a brown girl from our community, with her whole community behind her, could take on an entire machine and make them more scared than they’ve ever been before,” Cisneros said, prompting loud cheers from the crowd.

In an election cycle dominated by a dramatic and high-stakes Democratic presidential primary, Cisneros’s uphill battle to oust one of Congress’s most conservative and corporate-friendly Democrats became the most closely watched congressional primary to date.

Despite a surge of national attention and an infusion of cash from a coalition of unions, abortion rights groups and left-wing advocacy organizations, Cisneros was unable to stop Cuellar’s political machine. Her bid was likely also hurt by the region’s historically centrist politics and low voting rates.

“This is just the beginning,” Cisneros said in a Wednesday statement. “The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear, and our movement was victorious in proving we’re within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar waves to voters driving past on Monday in Laredo, Texas. He had reason again to smile on Tuesday night.
Rep. Henry Cuellar waves to voters driving past on Monday in Laredo, Texas. He had reason again to smile on Tuesday night.
Veronica Cardenas / Reuters

Cisneros and Cuellar are both Laredo natives and lawyers who were born to Mexican immigrants seeking a better life in the United States. But the similarities stop there.

Cisneros, 26, reported making less than $50,000 a year as a legal aid attorney during a brief period of employment in Brooklyn, New York, after a law school education that saddled her with six figures of debt. While she was in New York City, a high school teacher of hers recommended Cisneros to the left-wing group Justice Democrats as a candidate to take on Cuellar. Amid mounting frustration with the futility of defending immigrants trapped in President Donald Trump’s hardline enforcement regime, Cisneros accepted the challenge, forgoing health insurance, spending down her modest savings and moving in with her parents to make it work.

“I always wanted to be an advocate for my community, but I thought it was going to be in the courtroom and that wasn’t happening anymore,” she recalled during a lunch break between canvassing shifts in the city of Mission on Monday.

By contrast, Cuellar, 64, climbed the rungs of political power by ingratiating himself with Texas’s Republican establishment and corporate interests, including the fossil fuel, private prison and payday lending industries, all of which have contributed generously to his campaigns.

Over the course of his eight terms in the House, Cuellar has ascended to a post on the influential Appropriations Committee, accrued personal wealth through rental properties he owns and built a local patronage network to rival any in Texas. His sister Rosie Cuellar is tax assessor in Webb County, part of her brother’s district. Another brother, county Sheriff Martin Cuellar, has allegedly strong-armed employees into volunteering for the slate of candidates aligned with the Cuellars. Both critics and allies liken them to a regional version of the storied Kennedy family.

Henry Cuellar has used that power ― in Congress and the streets of Laredo ― to steer federal projects and money to his district. He has also cast votes against protecting abortion rights, regulating guns and helping unions organize. And at the behest of government contractors that donate to his campaign, he has helped militarize the border with Mexico.

In fact, in Trump’s first two years in office, Cuellar voted with the president almost 69% of the time.

“I understand the district.”

- Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas)

At a moment of fever-pitch animosity toward the president, Cuellar’s closeness to Trump had seemingly handed Cisneros the perfect cudgel. And sure enough, from the moment that Justice Democrats announced her recruitment in June 2019, Cisneros branded Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” She was off to the races, raising $100,000 in the first 48 hours of her campaign.

In addition, Cisneros’s bid benefited from the Justice Democrats’ association with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who landed her historic June 2018 primary upset with the group’s help. As a young Latina committed to the growing canon of progressive policy priorities ― among them “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and tuition-free public college ― Cisneros inevitably drew comparisons to the rockstar New York congresswoman. High-profile endorsements trickled in ― first from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), then from Ocasio-Cortez and finally from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

But the race in Texas differed in two key ways from Ocasio-Cortez’s success story. For one thing, the low-income, heavily Latino district along the U.S.-Mexican border, though solidly Democratic, has been historically more conservative than a liberal stronghold like New York City.

For another thing, neither liberal juggernauts like the Working Families Party nor corporate mega-lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were going to ignore the race as they had that New York primary two years ago. Cuellar’s social views were even far enough outside the mainstream to win Cisneros the support of traditionally more cautious players like EMILY’s List and Texas’s organized labor umbrella group.

But that also meant an equally unlikely coalition formed to reelect Cuellar. Apparently unbothered by his help fundraising for a vulnerable House Republican in 2018, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) campaigned in the district for him. And conservative billionaire Charles Koch’s super PAC saw fit to spend serious money on Cuellar’s behalf, making him the first Democrat to elicit that group’s backing.

Cuellar and his allies sought to paint Cisneros as a New York City interloper backed by the “Justice Socialists,” whose staunch support for women’s abortion rights was out of step with the district’s Catholic values and whose ambitious climate change plans would destroy the region’s fossil fuel jobs.

“I understand the district,” Cuellar said in a December interview on C-SPAN. “And for [Justice Democrats] to think that New York values ― with all due respect to New York ― are going to translate to border values ― they’re in fairyland right now.”

Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration attorney, campaigns in Laredo in October. Her supporters hope her candidacy will be the beginning of a generational shift in the region.
Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration attorney, campaigns in Laredo in October. Her supporters hope her candidacy will be the beginning of a generational shift in the region.
Veronica Cardenas / Reuters

Responding to claims that Cuellar better reflects the district, Cisneros questioned whether the congressman’s tenure was really working for all of the district’s residents. She noted to HuffPost that Laredo’s poverty rate was about 30% when Cuellar took office and has remained virtually unchanged since then.

Asked why, with a similar background, Cuellar had settled on such a different approach to politics, Cisneros said, “It’s people becoming so privileged that they forget their roots.”

Cisneros also did her best to turn her candidacy into a non-ideological call for positive change ― in the form of affordable health care, higher-paying jobs, a more compassionate immigration system and perhaps, most of all, a member of Congress accountable to all residents.

To that end, she spent considerable time in the rural Rio Grande Valley, which is a three-hour drive from Cuellar’s base in Laredo. On Monday morning, Cisneros’s canvassing route took her to Mission’s unincorporated “colonias” ― border-town trailer parks of sorts ― where grizzly-looking dogs, stray and domestic, outnumber streetlights and sidewalks.

Maria and Martin Jimenez, who are not yet citizens, were pleasantly surprised to meet Cisneros. They promised her that they would tell their young adult children, who were born in the U.S., to vote for her.

“This is the first time I met a person running for anything,” said Maria, a caregiver recovering from an injury. As for Cuellar, she said, “I don’t know him.”

But in the end, Cuellar’s pitch, buttressed by press releases touting new federal funds for the district that were designed to show his influence in Washington, appeared to have its intended effect.

“He’s gotten us lots of grants, lots of money. He’s done a lot,” said Aurora Garcia, a retired caregiver living near the Leon Daiches Elementary School, a polling site. Cisneros, she reasoned, was “very new ― not enough experience.”

A man casting his vote for the congressman at the school, who declined to give his name, said he knew Cuellar from Cuellar’s days working for him as a lifeguard at the county pool.

As for Cisneros, he said, “From what I understand, she’s got a socialistic agenda: She wants everything done, but somebody else has got to pay for it.”

Cisneros’s loss is likely to amplify the complaints of local progressives who had hoped that Bernie Sanders, who is apparently popular with locals, would visit the district on Cisneros’s behalf.

“Him coming down here would have increased the support from Laredoans as well,” said Flor Renovato, who cast votes for Cisneros and Sanders at Santo Niño Elementary School on Tuesday.

But Renovato, who is 21, predicted that even a loss for Cisneros had begun a generational shift away from the older, established political class in the region.

“She had the guts to try and that’s going to incentivize more people to get out there and know what’s going on,” she said.

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