Henry Cuellar, lone anti-abortion Democrat in House, faces third showdown with Jessica Cisneros in Texas runoff

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Cisneros, who turns 29 on Tuesday, nearly defeated Cuellar in 2020. This year, backed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a long list of leading progressive organizations, Democratic women’s groups and labor unions, she again came close, finishing less than two percentage points behind Cuellar in the March primary. Since neither candidate topped 50%, they advanced to Tuesday’s head-to-head runoff to represent Texas’ 28th Congressional District. The race is the clearest test to date of whether the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade will motivate voters and push abortion rights to the forefront of the 2022 midterm election.

But it’s also playing out in South Texas, in a district that stretches from San Antonio, a liberal area that makes up Cisneros’ base, to more moderate Laredo and its surrounding Rio Grande Valley counties, where support for Cuellar runs deep. Democratic voters there are largely Latino and historically more culturally conservative — a reality that partially explains Cuellar’s success there. It’s also a region where Republicans made major gains with Latino voters in the 2020 election, offering a window into a trend that could carry major implications across the national political map if it continues.

Another complicating factor is the FBI search of Cuellar’s home in January, weeks before the March primary. Cuellar has insisted he has done nothing wrong, and his attorney said Cuellar is not the target of the FBI investigation.

Still, Cisneros — an immigration attorney who interned in Cuellar’s Washington office as a college student — has used it to make the case that Cuellar isn’t focused on the interests of his district.

“It took me having to be in Congressman Cuellar’s office to find out that was anti-labor, to find out he was anti-choice, to find out he had lobbyist after lobbyist after lobbyist go through his office, and never really hosted families that looked like mine,” she said at a rally Friday with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The runoff also marks the latest in a series of increasingly expensive clashes — following last week’s primaries in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Oregon — between progressive and moderate forces within the Democratic Party.

Big-dollar outside groups aligned with the moderates spent heavily, as they’ve done in Texas, but received only a modest return on their investment: In Oregon’s 5th District, Rep. Kurt Schrader, despite support from national Democrats and a PAC aligned with the pharmaceutical industry, is trailing primary challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee also appears to have overcome more than $3 million in super PAC spending to edge out her moderate rival for the nomination in the commonwealth’s open 12th District race.

In North Carolina, though, progressive favorites Nida Allam, the Durham County commissioner running in the 4th Congressional District, and former state Sen. Erica Smith, vying for a nomination in the 1st District, were handily defeated by moderate candidates bolstered by significant spending from dark money groups.

The showdown in South Texas, in one of the most closely watched Democratic primaries of the cycle, has attracted a variety of big spenders, with a late push for Cisneros from EMILY’s List following the Supreme Court leak.

Divisions along ideological lines and the contentious relations between progressive groups and Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill have been cast in sharp relief by the clash over the Texas district. 

Cisneros called on Democratic congressional leaders to drop their support for Cuellar after the high court draft was first reported. Instead, they reaffirmed their support.

Pelosi earlier this month called Cuellar a “valued member of our caucus.” And House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland similarly defended Cuellar this month.

“We’re a diverse party and we have diverse opinions,” Hoyer told reporters. “We are overwhelmingly in our platform sense, a pro-choice party. …That does not mean there’s not room in our party for alternative voices.”

“I believe that Mr. Cuellar has represented his district well, his state well, I think he’s a valuable member of our Congress, and I’m supporting him for reelection,” Hoyer said.

Their continued support for Cuellar could help him avert disaster, but it has also reinforced Cisneros’ outsider image.

“The entire establishment in Washington — from Speaker Pelosi to (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) — has supported an anti-choice extremist and tried to stop Cisneros every step of the way,” Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid said. “This election is about sending a message to Washington that South Texas deserves a representative who isn’t beholden to the corporate donors, super PACs and powers that be.”

Cuellar has been boosted by nearly $2 million alone from the United Democracy Project, which is funded by AIPAC.

UDP spokesman Patrick Dorton said the group’s message is unchanged from past primaries and made no apologies for its involvement.

“The pro-Israel community will stand by its friends who support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship,” he said, “and confront those who are detractors of that relationship and would seek to undermine it.”

The new Mainstream Democrats PAC, which is backed LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, has also spent more than $750,000 to support Cuellar.