Rep. Henry Cuellar already faced a difficult rematch in the March 1 Democratic primary against the progressive challenger who nearly defeated him two years ago.
Then the FBI showed up in January to search his home here in Laredo and the building that houses his campaign office.
Though the details of the investigation remain murky as Texas prepares to kick off the 2022 midterm primary calendar with the year’s first contests, Cuellar’s challenger, 28-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, is seizing on the FBI probe in television advertisements and on the campaign trail. And progressives, sensing an opening to oust one of the House’s most conservative Democrats in a left-leaning district that the party would be favored to hold in the November general election, have rallied to her side, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsing Cisneros and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning for her in Texas in recent days.
Cisneros is facing a South Texas political institution in Cuellar, who served first in the state House starting in 1987, then, briefly, as Texas secretary of state in 2001 – appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry. He won his seat in Congress in 2004 by narrowly defeating a sitting Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, in the primary.
But his relationships with Republicans, coziness with corporations and conservative-for-a-Democrat voting record have also angered powerful Democratic groups that have now aligned against him. EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, labor unions like the Texas AFL-CIO and others have backed Cisneros. The Latino Victory Fund endorsed Cisneros earlier this month.
Cisneros’ campaign began a new 30-second television ad this month with 20 seconds of compiled news clips about the FBI investigation. Her allies are similarly pouncing: Justice Democrats, a progressive group that backs her candidacy, launched its own spot highlighting the probe. “After 36 years in politics, Cuellar has changed,” the narrator says.
“It really strengthens that message that we’ve been talking about from the very beginning,” Cisneros said in a recent interview at a Laredo coffee shop. “This is what we’ve been talking about in terms of corporate PACs, or Republican corporate interests having a corrupting influence on Cuellar’s vote.”
Then there’s the reality that the district lines have slightly shifted since 2020 as a result of redistricting. “Being raided by the FBI probably isn’t a good first impression” for voters who have not lived in Cuellar’s district before, Cisneros said.
Why Democrats turned on Cuellar
The mounting opposition to Cuellar stems from his status as the most conservative Democrat in the House. He has long supported gun rights and the fossil fuel industry. He was part of a group of lawmakers who pushed congressional leadership to separate the legislative push for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill from Biden’s broader “Build Back Better” agenda. Progressives had sought to tie the measures together to increase their chance of passage – and were ultimately proved right when the infrastructure bill passed while the Build Back Better Act collapsed.
Most infuriating for many Democrats was Cuellar’s September 2021 vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act — which would codify abortion rights even if the Supreme Court reverses its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
Cuellar was the only House Democrat to oppose the measure, which came after Texas state lawmakers had passed an anti-abortion law that is one of the most restrictive in the US and the developed world.
“This race is, of course, important for Texas, but we’re also looking at the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House,” said Kelly Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “This is a race that everyone should be watching. What it is is indicative to what the future of the party looks like and what the future is for advocating for abortion rights.”
The race is also under the national eye because it is taking place in a region where Democrats were stunned by their shrinking margins of victory with Latino voters in the 2020 election. The poor performance in South Texas and South Florida, in particular, raised new questions about electability and the kinds of candidates Democrats should field in those districts.
Even some of Cisneros’ supporters say the conservative views of some Democratic-voting Latinos could carry Cuellar to victory.
“With an FBI investigation looming, she has a better chance. But Laredo is very conservative,” said Jorge Martinez, a 52-year-old retail manager and Cisneros supporter in Laredo who attended a recent campaign event here for her. “I know we vote in blue, but our views are very conservative. So I think it’s still going to be an uphill battle for her.”
Cisneros said it was clear long before Election Day 2020 that Democrats would underperform in South Texas. But she said it’s not ideology but an electorate dissatisfied with those who have been representing them that is to blame.
“It’s not so much that people are getting conservative all of a sudden,” she said. “It’s more so that people have this anti-incumbent sentiment at the top of the ticket where they’re like, ‘I’ve been voting Democrat for such a long time. I still can’t make ends meet or I’m struggling to make ends meet. I still don’t have health insurance. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, things got even worse. I’m seeing people die, right, all the time, because we are a Covid hotspot.’ So to them, it was like, ‘I need to try something new because the status quo isn’t working for me.’”
Whoever emerges out of the primary will be a target for Republicans looking to take back the US House this fall. Joe Biden would have carried the redrawn seat by 7 points in 2020, but GOP operatives see the district as ripe for a flip in the current political environment.
Among the candidates vying for the Republican nomination are Sandra Whitten, the 2020 nominee who lost to Cuellar by 19 points, businessman and rancher Ed Cabrera and Air Force veteran Steven Fowler.
Cuellar’s low profile
Since the FBI search on January 19, Cuellar has kept a low profile in the 28th Congressional District, which stretches from the border city of Laredo to southeast San Antonio.
He has refused to debate Cisneros ahead of the upcoming primary. And his campaign declined to make the congressman available for an interview with CNN. Spokesman James Sonneman said Cuellar has spent recent weekends phone-banking with volunteers, but did not have any public events. Many of Cuellar’s previously vocal supporters either declined to comment or ignored interview requests, even if they had not backed away from him publicly after the FBI search.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports the party’s House incumbents and to which Cuellar has long paid dues, declined to comment and is not playing an active role in the race.
And the San Antonio Express-News, a major newspaper in the district that endorsed Cuellar in his 2020 primary against Cisneros, backed Cisneros this time around.
Cuellar’s campaign has largely relied on direct mail pieces and television ads to carry him in the wake of the FBI search.
In late January, addressing the search for the first time, he released a video standing in front of the house he had grown up in — rather than the one searched by the FBI — saying that the investigation will show “no wrongdoing on my part.”
“Let me be clear: I’m running for reelection, and I intend to win,” Cuellar says in the video.
Progressives target South Texas district
Meanwhile, buoyed by the FBI search in a race that already looked close, progressives see a clear opening.
Sanders endorsed Cisneros on Monday. His move came after Ocasio-Cortez visited Texas last weekend to campaign in Austin for Cisneros and Greg Casar, a progressive candidate in the Democratic primary for the nearby 35th Congressional District.
Ocasio-Cortez compared Cuellar to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has blocked Democratic agenda items in the Senate and refused to support changes to the filibuster in order to advance voting rights legislation.
“A lot of people say ‘Manchin, Manchin, Manchin,’” the congresswoman said in Texas. “But we know it’s not just Manchin. You know who’s helping him? Henry Cuellar.”
Cuellar’s campaign was dismissive of Ocasio-Cortez’s visit.
“The voters will decide this election not far left celebrities who stand for defunding the police, open borders, eliminating oil & gas jobs, and raising taxes on hard working Texans,” Cuellar’s campaign said in a statement emailed to reporters by chief of staff Jake Hochberg ahead of Ocasio-Cortez’s visit.
The race is in some ways reminiscent of the primary ouster of another anti-abortion Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, in 2020. Lipinski twice faced a progressive female challenger backed by a long roster of leading Democratic groups — first in 2018, when he narrowly survived against Marie Newman, then again in 2020, when Newman claimed victory.
Cuellar survived his first matchup against Cisneros in 2020, winning by less than 4 percentage points. But Cisneros, much like Newman was, appears even better positioned for their rematch.
Cuellar is “a corporate Democrat, working hand in hand with oil and gas lobbyists when they’re the ones creating things like the Texas freeze in that district,” said Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, which is holding phone banks for Cisneros.
“We’ve always known that Cuellar is corrupt in some way. It didn’t take an FBI investigation for us to notice that,” Sciales said.
FBI search undercuts Cuellar’s support
Cuellar, though, has deeper alliances on Capitol Hill. He has raised millions for the Democratic Party and has long paid dues to the DCCC.
He has also built bridges across the political aisle – at times infuriating Democrats. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told The Texas Tribune last year after the House GOP’s campaign arm identified Cuellar’s district as a target in the 2022 midterm elections that “Henry Cuellar is my friend and he’s my partner.”
“There are better targets than Congressman Cuellar,” Cornyn said then.
In 2020, Cuellar had vocal Democratic supporters, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who visited the district 10 days before his primary election against Cisneros.
Since the FBI search, though, Cuellar’s allies have largely been quiet.
Jen Ramos, a member of the Texas Democratic Party’s executive committee who supports Cisneros, said the challenger has the advantage of being much better-known now than she was ahead of the 2020 primary.
“This time around, in 2022, Jessica has name ID,” Ramos said. “She never really went away. She stayed involved in the community, has been really active in the district.”
Meanwhile, she said, Cuellar has not changed since 2020.
“FBI investigation aside, after electing Henry in a very public, very expensive primary election, Henry really had to kind of answer, what has changed? What has he learned? And really, the answer is he hasn’t learned anything,” Ramos said, pointing to Cuellar’s votes against a pro-labor union measure known as the PRO Act and the abortion rights legislation.
“These are consequences to real elections and real issues that constituents in the 28th District are paying attention to,” she said.
Ramos is not alone in her belief that Cuellar is growing out of touch with the Democratic Party in Laredo.
“What’s left of the Boomers that blindly support Cuellar are fading, and the Boomers that consider themselves more moderate, like my dad, my uncles, my relatives, are listening to Gen Zers more,” said Beatriz Mendoza, a deputy chair of the Democratic Party in Webb County, home to Laredo.
“Gen Z and millennials are becoming more activated in politics and we are advocating within our families for more progressive candidates,” she said.
Third candidate in race
There is a third candidate in the primary race: Tannya Benavides, who is also from Laredo.
While organizing with the No Border Wall coalition in South Texas, Benavides said she was constantly asked what her congressman was doing about the situation at the border.
“He continuously voted to appropriate wall money, under the pretense that he didn’t want a government shutdown. Time and again, I sat in these meetings with congressional delegates up and down the border. And the conversation always shifted to, ‘Well, what is your congressman doing?’ and ‘What about Rep. Cuellar?’ For me, it became clear that there’s only so much you can do to organize. You can’t out-organize around elected officials that don’t have the political will to bring about change in their communities. And that is why I decided to launch my campaign.”
Benavides sought to position herself outside the progressive-versus-conservative frame through which many have viewed Cisneros and Cuellar.
Pointing to Republican gains in the 2020 election among Latinos, particularly in South Texas, she said voters in the district should focus on electability.
“From what I’ve experienced just knocking on doors, there is a lot of voter apathy. Then you see something like your congressman being investigated by the FBI and that leads to even more disillusionment and disenfranchisement,” Benavides said.
“We cannot deny the red trend in South Texas,” she said. “The reality is that for whatever reason, we have not been able to figure out what moves people to vote.”