Progressives eye Texas race as test for toppling incumbents

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks about the United States-Mexico border during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, July 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Henry Cuellar is an increasingly rare politician in the Democratic Party, a conservative-leaning lawmaker whose unapologetic defense of gun rights and the energy industry during his 17 years in Congress long delighted his Texas constituents. 

That was once a winning strategy for Democrats running in moderate swaths of the country. But for Cuellar, whose district stretches from the San Antonio suburbs to the Mexican border, those stances could leave him vulnerable to a challenge from the left by 28-year-old immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros. She nearly beat Cuellar in the 2020 primary and is seeking a rematch with hopes of tapping into growing frustration among progressives about the pace of change in Washington. 

An FBI search near Cuellar’s home last week could add a new dimension to the contest. Cuellar hasn’t been charged with a crime and the bureau has said nothing about the scope of its investigation, including whether he is the subject of a probe. 

But the development added to the stakes of the March 1 primary in Texas, which will usher in several months of contests across the nation to determine which candidates advance to the fall general election. Progressives are closely watching the race as a test of whether they can topple other moderate, establishment-oriented candidates as the primary season unfolds.  

“I think Jessica had a strong shot before the investigation,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the progressive group Justice Democrats, which has backed Democratic primary challengers against more moderate members of Congress around the country. “I think she can win.” 

Representatives for Cuellar did not comment for this story. His office issued a brief statement after the search, saying the congressman “will fully cooperate in any investigation.” 

Shahid compared Cisneros to progressive stars like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts who “have really become rising figures in the party.” 

When Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in a 2018 primary, she ushered in a new era in which progressives take on veteran, establishment-oriented incumbents in an effort to move the party to the left.  

Progressives hoping to add Cuellar to the list of defeated incumbents are gauging whether the FBI search is the type of late-stage development that could shift the campaign in their favor.  

Cisneros has so far not rushed to promote the raid as a potential political liability, saying in a statement only that, “We are closely watching as this develops. In the meantime, we are focused on our campaign.” 

Justice Democrats has not showed such restraint, with its executive director, Alexandra Rojas, releasing a statement on Cuellar asking “What is he hiding?”  

Justice Democrats first recruited Cisneros to run against Cuellar in 2020, after supporting Ocasio Cortez’s upset primary win two years earlier.  

Cisneros, who was an intern in Cuellar’s Washington office in 2014, racked up endorsements from many of the left’s leading national voices, including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Ocasio Cortez. She branded Cuellar as “Trump’s favorite Democrat” and ultimately came within 4 percentage points of beating him. 

First elected to Congress in 2004, Cuellar serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and was outspoken in blaming national Democrats’ move to the left during the 2020 campaign on issues like health care and the environment as contributing to some disappointing losses in the House.  

He argued that GOP suggestions that Democrats opposed police, embraced socialized medicine and would sacrifice jobs in key industries like oil and gas created a narrative that helped ensure Democrats retained their majority in the chamber by only the slimmest of margins. 

The primary’s outcome could prove even more critical this cycle, as Democrats look to defend their narrow control of the House in November.  

Republicans are hoping to stay competitive in a district that’s nearly 80% Hispanic, betting they can capitalize on former President Donald Trump’s unexpectedly strong 2020 showing among Latino voters, especially in south Texas. Biden won Latinos by a 59% to 38% margin over Trump two years ago, but that was 7 percentage points lower than Hillary Clinton’s 66% to 28% margin in 2016, according to Pew Research Center data.