Progressives and moderates are putting all their might into a south Texas runoff with outsized implications.
On Tuesday, Jessica Cisneros will compete against Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) in one of the most high-profile Democratic match-ups in this year’s midterm cycle. A 28-year-old attorney and daughter of immigrants, Cisneros is challenging the most conservative Democrat in the House, a nine-term congressman nearly four decades her senior who has leadership’s blessing.
The election comes as the left is under pressure to build on recent momentum, while moderate anxiety increases over the possibility of losing swing districts.
“We understand the enormity of the opposition, so we’re not taking anything for granted,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, said about centrist Democrats.
Progressives won Senate and House primaries in Pennsylvania last week and are on track to notch another success in Oregon against a Biden-endorsed seven-term congressman. Moderates — already spooked by President Biden’s poor standing and related domestic problems — hope Cuellar can help blunt progressives’ traction. They caution progressives will have a difficult climb against Republicans in November, making the Texas contest even more consequential.
Liberals like Mitchell say that position is all wrong, and hope that a hard-fought victory proves to be a national predictor of voters’ preferences.
“Progressives are building a pipeline,” he said. “These really compelling, often young, many times women and people of color who I think are the first line of defense against sagging turnout and cynicism of the base.”
The left sees Cisneros as one of those candidates. A millennial Latina and state school graduate, she has fashioned her campaign around policies close to her experience in the 28th Congressional District: public education, discussions around immigration and support for reproductive justice.
Like the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party, Cisneros is staunchly supportive of the right to an abortion. That stance would hardly be remarkable in any other Dem-on-Dem contest. But she has sought to emphasize that message during the latter half of the campaign, hoping to set herself apart from Cuellar on the issue.
Cuellar is the last Democrat opposed to abortion rights remaining in the House, a position that has upset liberals and reemerged on the campaign trail after a draft memo from the Supreme Court revealed a majority’s desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed the right to an abortion.
Speaking to The Hill, Cisneros said she wants to show voters that Cuellar could be disastrous for Democrats who care about protecting abortion rights that GOP governors and state legislatures are looking to roll back.
“It’s one thing bracing yourself for the fall of Roe and another, very much different, watching it happen,” Cisneros said. “We need a pro-choice majority in Congress. Henry Cuellar does not have a part in that.”
Her opponent, Cisneros contended, could become even more problematic for Democrats looking to campaign on protecting Roe before the midterms. She mentioned the Women’s Health Protection Act, a critical piece of reproductive legislation, which would need a majority of House Democrats’ support to pass the next time it comes up for a vote.
If Cuellar is reelected, she warned, he could be a key dissenter akin to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in the Senate, who donated to Cuellar and has been in public opposition to many of Biden’s legislative priorities this past year. Cuellar, who has been in office for nearly two decades, previously voted alongside Republicans against the bill and has also voted in the past to defund Planned Parenthood, putting him at odds with other Democrats who broadly support both efforts.
“When the Women’s Health Protection Act comes up again, he could very much be the Joe Manchin of the House,” Cisneros said. “We just cannot risk that. He cannot be the determining vote on reproductive freedom in this country.”
In the lead-up to Election Day, Cisneros has barnstormed the district giving interviews in English and Spanish, leaning into a progressive platform but staying away from activist slogans that some feel are alienating. She earned support from top progressives and liberal organizations like EMILY’s List. On Friday, one of her biggest endorsers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), stumped for her in San Antonio.
The Democratic socialist tailored his anti-establishment message to fit Cisneros’s bid, telling voters: “You should vote for her to tell these billionaires that they cannot buy elections.” Sanders has condemned outside spending from corporations and political action committees who backed establishment candidates over insurgent rivals.
Cuellar was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business-Industry PAC, and has not disavowed corporate funding sources in his campaign. He takes money from the oil industry, which has also troubled many on the left.
Other leading progressives and activists outside of Congress have also criticized spending in the Texas primary.
“The choice is clear for Democrats,” said Ezra Oliff-Lieberman, electoral organizer for Sunrise Movement. “They can side with an anti-choice, corporate Democrat, and outcast young and working people in this fight, or they can fight with us for choice, clean air and water, and win elections.”
The race has attracted millions of dollars in fundraising, with Cisneros ultimately outpacing Cuellar, taking in $4.5 million throughout the rematch to his $3.1 million as of May. The Texas Tribune and other local outlets reported that Cisneros also had a fundraising boost after news of the Supreme Court draft decision became public.
Where Cisneros had Sanders in her corner, Cuellar has Democratic leadership including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the most influential and longest serving congressmen, getting out the vote on his behalf. The South Carolina kingmaker has been known to squash political rivals. His support of Biden quieted a scattered field of White House competitors, and his more recent endorsement of Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) helped her win a second term in Cleveland over leftist challenger Nina Turner.
Moderates are hoping that support will give him an extra boost. Over the weekend, Pelosi gave a 30–second robo-call to voters in the Texas district.
“Henry is a fighter for hard-working families,” she said in the recording. “In Congress, Henry has championed good-paying jobs and health care for our people. He has brought back millions of dollars for the district.”
Clyburn, for his part, stumped for Cuellar earlier this month, reportedly telling local leaders at a private event that “We can’t expect one person to agree with us all of the time. You don’t grow that way. When I sit down with people who agree with me, there’s nothing to be learned from that sitting.”
Clyburn added he’s “learned a lot from Henry Cuellar.”
Cisneros said the top three Democrats’ support for Cuellar was troubling.
“Yes, we are upset,” she said. “It’s our fundamental freedoms on the line.” But she downplayed any potential future rift with those Democrats, adding that if she makes it to Capitol Hill, she would likely support Pelosi if she seeks another term as Speaker.
“At this point we still don’t know who is going to be running for Speaker role,” Cisneros said. “If she is, then we are obviously able to work together. … I’m ready to work with whomever has the best interest for my community in mind and if that’s Speaker Pelosi and she decides to run again for Speaker, absolutely.”
Other advocates were less diplomatic.
“This hypocrisy is shameful,” said Varshini Prakash, Sunrise’s executive director. “Young people need to know Democrats are fighting for them. This is the moment. We’re coming out and fighting for our values, now they have to step up.”
Cuellar is hoping voters grant him another chance to represent his district and rejoin moderate allies in the lower chamber. He was one of a small group of House centrists who banded together to separate Biden’s infrastructure bill from the bigger Build Back Better package, which many saw as a win for their flank.
The district has gotten more competitive in recent years and is on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of top targets. Republicans also believe the large Catholic population in Laredo means abortion could be a winning issue for their side in the general election.
Reached by The Hill about Cuellar’s prospects, Jake Hochberg, the congressman’s chief of staff, offered a simple prediction: “We will win.”
The results of the runoff will in part be a referendum on whether voters will support a Democrat who opposes abortion rights after learning about the potential direction of the court on choice. National election watchers believe the outcome is likely to foreshadow how prominent the issue could be in later match-ups in the fall.
In the immediate aftermath of the draft memo, Cuellar pointed to his faith, while leaving some room for interpretation on his stance.
“As a Catholic, I do not support abortion,” he wrote in a brief statement. “However, we cannot have an outright ban. There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.”
Progressives, however, see the issue as just one component of a broader dialogue about party ideology and who is best qualified to move the caucus forward — including in the fall.
“There’s not one national election this cycle,” said Mitchell. “There’s many, many, many elections. If you’re thinking from that standpoint, then one of the things that could lift the voter turnout and voter excitement are compelling leaders on the local level.”