What to watch in the Texas runoffs Tuesday

Cuellar rematch and open seats split Democratic liberals and moderates

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, faces a nationally watched primary challenge.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, faces a nationally watched primary challenge. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 23, 2022 at 12:33pm

Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the Democrat in the House who has most consistently opposed abortion rights, faces the biggest challenge of his political career Tuesday in a primary runoff that has attracted intense national attention in the wake of a leaked Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. 

The race is one of several House runoffs from the March 1 primary that will be settled Tuesday. 

In the 28th District, progressive groups have lined up behind immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who is waging her second bid against Cuellar. 

Cuellar, who has held his seat since 2005, has argued that his positions, including votes against abortion rights, reflect a better understanding of the Latino-majority district along the Mexico border. Cuellar beat Cisneros by 4 points in 2020 and led the March primary with 48.5 percent to Cisneros’ 46.8 percent. He has the support of House Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, who visited Texas to stump for Cuellar after the draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked. 

The 28th District became slightly more Democratic during redistricting, picking up voters in left-leaning areas around San Antonio. Cuellar was also dealing with the fallout of an FBI raid of his home, reportedly in connection with an ongoing federal probe related to Azerbaijan. Cuellar maintained the investigation would find no wrongdoing on his part.

Cisneros has outraised Cuellar, $4.4 million to his $3.1 million. Both have substantial outside support, with $1.4 million going to support Cuellar and $688,000 to oppose him, compared to $1.1 million in support of Cisneros and $1.4 million to oppose her. 

The race in November is rated Likely Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, but Republicans see it as a pickup opportunity regardless of the Democratic nominee. Their nominee will also be selected in a runoff Tuesday between Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sandra Whitten, who was the GOP nominee for the district in 2020. Garcia, who is in the “Young Guns” program for promising challengers run by the National Republican Congressional Committee, led the March 1 primary with 23.6 percent of the vote to Whitten’s 18 percent. 

Open seats split Democrats 

Two Democratic runoffs for open seats in Texas, meanwhile, have drawn the attention of national progressive groups. 

In the highly competitive 15th District, Michelle Vallejo, an activist and small-business owner, is facing off against Ruben Ramirez, a lawyer and Army veteran. Vallejo has support from progressive groups and lawmakers in Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. 

Ramirez has the backing of current 15th District Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who is running in the more safely Democratic 34th District; the moderate Blue Dog Coalition; and the national groups VoteVets and 314 Action, which support veterans and candidates with science backgrounds, respectively. Ramirez is the top fundraiser, with $414,000 in receipts to Vallejo’s $391,000. Ramirez also benefited from $492,000 in support from the pro-Israel DFMI PAC, which has spent heavily against progressive candidates in Democratic primaries this cycle. 

The winner will face GOP nominee Monica De La Cruz, a Trump-endorsed insurance agency owner, in November. The south central district would have narrowly voted for Trump over Biden under the new maps, making it the most competitive in the state after redistricting. The race in November is rated a Toss-up.

Progressive groups have also taken sides in the Dallas-area 30th District runoff to replace retiring Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Attorney Jasmine Crockett, who has Johnson’s endorsement, led the five-person March primary with 48 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent threshold. She faces Jane Hope Hamilton, the state director for Biden’s 2020 campaign, who finished second with 17 percent of the vote in March. 

The five-person race was crowded with high-profile political figures who split the loyalties of national and state political groups. But it was cast as a measure of progressive political clout against the more traditional elements of the party, a theme that will only intensify in a one-on-one runoff.

Crockett attracted national attention, and eventually Johnson’s endorsement, when she served as the spokesperson for the state House Democratic caucus as they fought a GOP bill last summer to impose new voting restrictions. She also had backing from national progressive groups, including Our Revolution, a group that was spun out of the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She benefited from more than $400,000 in outside spending during the runoff. 

Hamilton, a former chief of staff and campaign manager to Rep. Marc Veasey, has his endorsement along with those of other state and local political figures. She was also the top fundraiser in the race, pulling in $654,000 to Crockett’s $567,000.