Progressives eye Texas race as test to topple incumbents
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Henry Cuellar is an increasingly rare politician in the Democratic Party, a conservative-leaning lawmaker whose unabashed defense of gun rights and the energy industry over the past his 17 years in Congress has long delighted his Texas voters.
It was once a winning strategy for Democrats running in moderate swathes of the country. But for Cuellar, whose neighborhood stretches from suburban San Antonio to the Mexican border, those positions could leave him vulnerable to a challenge from the left by 28-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros. She came close to beating Cuellar in the 2020 primary and is seeking rematch in hopes of capitalizing on progressives’ growing frustration with the pace of change in Washington.
An FBI search near Cuellar’s home this week could add a new dimension to the contest. Cuellar has not been charged with a crime and the bureau has said nothing about the scope of his investigation, including whether he is being investigated.
But the development has added to the stakes for the March 1 primary in Texas, which will usher in several months of contests across the country to determine which candidates will qualify for the fall general election. Progressives are watching the race closely as a test of whether they can topple other moderate and establishment-oriented candidates as the primary season unfolds.
“I think Jessica had a good chance before the investigation,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the progressive group Justice Democrats, which has backed leading Democratic challengers against more moderate members of Congress across the country. “I think she can win.”
Representatives for Cuellar have not commented on this story. His office released a brief statement after the search, saying the congressman “will cooperate fully with any investigation.”
“He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld,” the statement said.
Shahid compared Cisneros to progressive stars like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts who “have really become rising figures in the party and are part of this new generation of leaders.”
When Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in a 2018 primary, she ushered in a new era in which progressives face off against establishment-oriented veteran incumbents in an effort to shift the party to the left on issues such as environment and health care.
Progressives hoping to add Cuellar to the list of defeated incumbents are weighing whether FBI research is the kind of advanced development that could swing the campaign in their favor.
Cisneros has so far not rushed to promote the raid as a potential political liability, only saying in a statement that: “We are closely monitoring developments. In the meantime, we are concentrating on our campaign.
Justice Democrats showed no such restraint, with its executive director, Alexandra Rojas, releasing a statement about Cuellar asking “What is he hiding?” Shahid said former Democrats have closed ranks around Cuellar, noting the Texan tweeted that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer endorsed him just before the FBI raid was announced.
“In all of our races, the Democratic Party establishment tends to consolidate around the incumbent,” Shahid said.
Justice Democrats first recruited Cisneros to run against Cuellar in 2020, after backing Ocasio Cortez’s upset primary victory two years earlier.
Cisneros, who was an intern in Cuellar’s Washington office in 2014, has racked up endorsements from many prominent national voices on the left, including the Senses. Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, as well as Ocasio Cortez. She called Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat” and ultimately came within 4 percentage points of beating him.
First elected to Congress in 2004, Cuellar sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has openly blamed the movement of National Democrats to the left during the 2020 campaign on issues such as health care and the environment to contribute to disappointing losses in the House.
He argued that GOP suggestions that Democrats oppose policing, embrace socialized medicine and sacrifice jobs in key industries like oil and gas created a narrative that helped ensure Democrats retain their majority in the chamber by only the narrowest of margins – even though the more moderate Joe Biden won the presidency.
Cuellar has drawn progressive criticism for years, in part because of the praise he has drawn from groups like the National Rifle Association. He was also the only House Democrat to oppose major abortion rights legislation in September. And Cuellar joined a group of moderates who helped push through a major public works bill that enjoyed broader bipartisan support before Congress could tackle a spending package. and greater social protection championed by Biden and top progressives. It still hasn’t passed.
The outcome of the primary could prove even more critical this cycle, as Democrats seek to defend their tight control of the House in November.
After beating Cisneros for the first time, Cuellar secured a nearly 20-point victory over a little-known Republican opponent. New congressional maps based on the 2020 census make the district slightly more Democratic, scooping up blue territory along its northern ends near San Antonio.
Still, Republicans are hoping to stay competitive in a district that’s nearly 80% Hispanic, betting they can capitalize on former President Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong performance in 2020 among Latino voters, especially in the South. Texas. Biden won the Latinos by a 59% to 38% margin over Trump two years ago, but that was 7 percentage points shy of Hillary Clinton’s 66% to 28% margin in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center data.
Tania Unzueta, political director of the progressive Latin organization Mijente, which has backed Cisneros, said the group sees political investment in South Texas as particularly important to counter the rise of right-wing candidates and ideology in the region.
“The great thing about it happening close to the election is that people are actually able to act pretty immediately,” Unzueta said of the FBI raid near Cuellar’s home. “And we have a good alternative.”
But Democratic strategist Matt Angle noted that so much remains unclear about the circumstances of the FBI investigation and, with more than a month until the primary, the policy implications for Cuellar are uncertain.
“It was a hotly contested and competitive primary no matter what,” he said.