Cuellar primary tests how progressive ideas play in competitive Texas seat

Challenger Cisneros came up 4 points short in 2020 primary

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a Democratic primary rematch from immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who lost a 2020 challenge by 4 percentage points.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a Democratic primary rematch from immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who lost a 2020 challenge by 4 percentage points. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 24, 2022 at 10:05am

“She knows her agenda won’t fly here,” says a female, accented voice in a newly released political ad, as bold text reading “Backed by the Defund Police movement” and “Open Borders” slides across scenes of the Texas desert.

This ad wasn’t approved by a Texas Republican, but rather by moderate Democrat Henry Cuellar, the longtime incumbent hoping to stave off a primary rematch from Jessica Cisneros, a progressive immigration lawyer whom he narrowly beat two years ago. 

The pair will again go head-to-head on March 1 in a race that will test how progressive ideas fare in Texas’ Democratic-leaning 28th District, where about 70 percent of the eligible voting population after redistricting is Hispanic, according to the Texas Tribune.  Early voting began on Feb. 14.

Cuellar, the so-called “King of Laredo” who has held the seat since 2005, is relying on his years of experience in the district and stronger name recognition. 

The incumbent congressman has received donations from Democratic House leadership. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and outgoing Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, each gave him $4,000, while California Rep. Pete Aguilar’s leadership political action committee threw in $2,500. 

But the 28-year-old Cisneros, who lost by only about 4 percentage points in the 2020 primary, hopes to give Cuellar a run for his money. 

She provides a stark contrast to her incumbent opponent, known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the caucus. 

Cuellar was the only Democrat to vote against otherwise party-line legislation last year to codify the right to have an abortion. He also has frequently voiced support for investing in more border security, though not a border wall. 

Cisneros’ platform, in contrast, generally squares with more progressive Democratic priorities: she has called for improved access to affordable health care for Texans,  a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and federal paid leave. 

She has racked up a slew of endorsements from prominent progressives, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the latter of whom traveled to Texas earlier this month to stump for her.

And while Cuellar entered the final weeks of the race with $800,000 more in his campaign account, Cisneros raised more than $707,000 from the beginning of the year through Feb. 9, with Cuellar taking in $147,000. 

Immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is making her second Democratic primary challenge to Cuellar in Texas' 28th District. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Outside groups have also stepped in to support Cisneros, spending nearly $1.2 million through Tuesday, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. That includes $295,000 from Justice Democrats PAC for direct mail and TV and digital ads, and more than $260,000 from the Communications Workers of America for canvassing, phone banks, literature and yard signs.

Cisneros has also capitalized on the recent FBI raid of Cuellar’s home, reportedly in connection with an ongoing federal probe related to Azerbaijan. A recent attack ad claimed Cuellar “has changed” after more than three decades in politics. 

“She has really a lot of potential to move,” said Yvonne Gutierrez, managing director of the Latino Victory Project. “She is targeting young voters, and I think that there is an appetite, certainly, for a candidate like Jessica.”

But Cuellar isn’t worried, said a senior campaign member, expressing confidence that Cuellar will beat Cisneros by an even larger margin than he did in 2020. 

“The congressman is in touch with the values of Texas, and south Texas specifically and the Hispanic community,” while his opponent’s values don’t square with constituents, said the campaign staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly. 

Cisneros’ campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Uphill battles

Despite more momentum in the final weeks of the campaign, Cisneros likely faces more of an uphill battle to win the district. 

Her greatest challenge is “every young candidate’s challenge,” which is the strong incumbent with a long time in office, said Gutierrez.

A third candidate, community organizer Tannya Benavides, could also siphon off voters and send the race into a runoff. 

In a district where the median household income is below $54,000 a year, according to 2019 Census Bureau data, Cisneros could also face hesitancy from voters over progressive economic policy changes, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. 

Cisneros has advocated for a $15 minimum wage and supported the Green New Deal to invest in cleaner energy, while Cuellar has stressed the importance of protecting oil and gas jobs in the district. The Cuellar campaign staffer called proposals for universal health care and the Green New Deal “failed policies that people do not support here.”

Rottinghaus characterized the race as part of a “long-simmering battle between progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party.”

“Most voters in this district are going to be pretty risk averse. Seeing the problems and being worried in the middle of an economic crisis means that you’re not going to find a big appetite for significant change,” he said. 

Still, some political analysts and operatives think Cisneros’ more progressive ideas could resonate in the region. 

Of the nine counties in Cuellar’s district, five went for Sanders in the 2020 presidential primary, indicating that further-left ideals are not anathema to Democrats in the region. 

Those results show that it’s a “misconception” that south Texas is more conservative, said Mario Carrillo, the Texas-based campaign manager for America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. “I think there’s something happening in Texas, and Jessica saw that early on.”

Cuellar’s ideas are “out of step with Democratic voters across the country,” added Ryan O’Donnell, electoral director of Data for Progress, a left-wing think tank and polling firm. “He doesn’t stand for the policies that we know are popular with Democrats across the country.” 

The Cuellar campaign staffer pushed back against those claims, highlighting the congressman’s record of voting with the party most of the time. 

Since he came to Congress in 2005, Cuellar voted with a majority of Democrats on measures where the parties were divided an average 78.2 percent of the time, compared with an average “party unity score” of 93.4 percent for all Democrats, according to CQ Vote Watch. 

His unity score ticked up considerably after Democrats regained the majority in 2019, however. Since 2019, Cellular’s average has been 92.7 percent, compared with 98 percent for an average of all Democrats. 

At the same time, just three Democrats had lower unity scores than Cuellar’s 95.1 percent in 2021, which may be the result of the party’s narrow majority and Pelosi’s unwritten rule of not putting measures up if she does not have the votes to pass them.

An ‘enthusiasm gap’

Cisneros’ likelihood of success in the primary could hinge significantly on turnout — a tougher climb this year during a midterm election than in 2020, when she shared a ballot with the future president, Joe Biden. 

Carrillo said that though Latinos voters, while not a monolith, are generally Democratic-leaning, there is an “enthusiasm gap” among them that Democrats haven’t been able to close.

“I think, by and large, Democrats have a lot more to gain if they were to get a higher turnout in the border region,” he said. 

Election results could also send a signal nationally about where the Latino vote is trending politically. 

Republicans have set their sights on the 28th District as one of their best pickup opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, partly because of their gains with Latino voters in the border area, strategists who spoke to CQ Roll Call said. 

Biden carried the district by just 4 points in 2020, a surprisingly close margin after Hillary Clinton carried it by almost 20 points four years earlier, according to an analysis by Daily Kos Elections.  And it was among the first districts the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, targeted this cycle. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Democratic, but it is within reach for the GOP if there is a wave election.

Rottinghaus said that if Cuellar wins by a big enough margin, “it will suggest clearly that voters care more about their issues, especially their pocketbook, than they do about progressive causes or potential FBI investigations. That’s frankly the way that national politics have gone.”

But if Cisneros loses, and by a larger margin than she did two years ago, he said, “it will be a signal that progressive politics aren’t as in vogue in this part of Texas as they are in bigger urban areas.”

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.