San Antonio rock club Paper Tiger is one of the cooler places in the Alamo City. In recent months, it’s hosted a who’s who of the hottest names in indie rock—Idles, Japanese Breakfast, and Julien Baker among them—and its lineup on Saturday morning drew a similar crowd of young folks in Doc Martens and Converse. The headliner? Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hosting a rally in support of two Texas congressional candidates: Greg Casar, the Austin city council member running in the open primary in the Thirty-fifth Congressional District, which includes portions of Austin, Hays County, and San Antonio; and Jessica Cisneros, the 28-year-old immigration attorney challenging longtime incumbent Henry Cuellar in the Twenty-eighth, a sprawling district that stretches from Rio Grande City to Laredo and all the way up to the east side of San Antonio. (Adding to the rock and roll atmosphere, Austin musician Jackie Venson opened the show.)
Casar and Cisneros—like AOC in the 2018 campaign that made her a political superstar—are running with the support of Justice Democrats, the political action committee that was formed in 2017 to recruit candidates in local and statewide races around the country who would excite the same young, progressive voters who were activated by Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential run. As the organization has developed in the years since the 2018 election, it has narrowed its focus, from endorsing dozens of candidates in Senate, congressional, gubernatorial, and other races to a tight collection of a half-dozen House primary races in 2022—a third of which, represented by Casar and Cisneros, run through Texas.
At Paper Tiger on Saturday morning, Cisneros shouted out Justice Democrats in telling the story of how she was recruited for her first congressional run in 2020, and was met with chants of “Jess-i-ca, Jess-i-ca” from the crowd—a reception that was matched by Casar’s, and topped by AOC’s. But despite the rock-show vibe, packing several hundred enthusiastic young voters into a bar is only part of what the candidates—and a progressive movement that needs to prove it can win elections in a state like Texas—need to accomplish.
In 2020, Justice Democrats put forth a slate of eight new candidates, plus another seven incumbents. The incumbents, all of whom ran in safe districts, sailed to reelection. The newcomers—a group that included Cisneros, whose current challenge to Cuellar amounts to a rematch—had more mixed results. Five of them advanced beyond their primary, and the organization’s final tally brought just three new progressive candidates into Congress. (Only one of them, Illinois representative Marie Newman, ran in a competitive district that November.) Of the candidates who came up short, Cisneros had the most promising result, losing to Cuellar by just 2,690 votes.
Cisneros sees her 2020 campaign as an introductory experience. “The first time, there was such a huge learning curve. A big challenge for our campaign was name ID, especially for how big the district is. It’s a lot of ground to cover. But we’re not starting from scratch this time. Last time, we asked people to envision the impossible,” she told me earlier in the week. “This time, we have proof that we came really close, so they can trust the campaign to take it over the finish line.” Some external circumstances are also keeping Cisneros a viable candidate. While the Twenty-eighth Congressional District had its contours nudged by redistricting, the bulk of the voters in the district saw her name on the ballot in 2020—and in January, Cuellar was the subject of an FBI raid that changed the dynamics of the race. Cisneros earned the endorsement of the San Antonio Express-News for the first time—something the paper said it intended to give even before the raid—and gamblers on the political betting market PredictIt began to favor her as roughly a 60/40 favorite (the specific odds fluctuate throughout the day).
Casar has similarly scooped up endorsements. Texas’s Thirty-fifth Congressional District didn’t change much in redistricting, but other circumstances made it a viable race for newcomers seeking an opportunity: namely, a new district, the Thirty-seventh, was drawn to encompass much of Austin. That led TX-35’s previous incumbent, Lloyd Doggett, to run to represent that district, which includes the bulk of his hometown. Casar opted for the open lane in TX-35, and—with the help of Justice Democrats—quickly put together an organization capable of attracting large-scale support in the district. He’s running against state representative Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin-based Democrat, and former San Antonio city council member Rebecca Viagran. The campaign has been largely amicable—Rodriguez’s first ad is a parody of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials—and all three candidates tout their working-class credentials. But it’s Casar, campaigning on the Green New Deal and Medicare for all, who’s earned the highest-profile endorsements—from the Express-News, the Texas AFL-CIO and other local labor organizations, along with political figures with profiles both national (AOC and Elizabeth Warren chief among them) and local (Wendy Davis, Austin mayor Steve Adler, a half-dozen current Austin and San Antonio city council members).
“I always thought it was really important to serve my [city council] district, but all of Travis County’s fate is tied together—and once you start working that way, you recognize that the fate of Travis County is tied to the fate of people in Buda and Kyle as well,” Casar told me. That helped him build inroads in San Antonio as well. “The communities up and down I-35 are actually very interlinked,” he said. In lieu of polling, a glance at the betting odds tells us that the sharps on PredictIt believe that Casar has roughly an 85 percent chance of prevailing in his primary. Speaking at Paper Tiger, Ocasio-Cortez expressed confidence that Casar would prevail in his primary—the goal, as she put it, was to run up the margins, so Washington could see the size of the constituency he represented.
After the primary, the paths for the two candidates will diverge. TX-35 is about as safe for Democrats as districts get—in 2020, Doggett won by 35 points—while TX-28 is potentially in play for the GOP. The Cook Political Report identifies the seat as “Lean Democratic,” but it’s hardly a sure thing after the inroads the GOP made in South Texas in 2020. If Cisneros wins her primary, she’ll be in a unique position. She’ll essentially be an avatar for major questions facing Democrats in competitive districts: Is the party more likely to succeed with a candidate like Cuellar—a pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-regulation nine-term representative who’s among the most conservative Democrats in the House—or with someone who runs as an unabashed progressive? Can a progressive in a swing district activate enough voters who are excited at the thought of Medicare for all and the Green New Deal to succeed?
The possibility of winning that argument led Justice Democrats to lend its support to Cisneros again. “In so many parts of the state, the only way you became an elected Texas Democrat was by following the path of Blue Dogs like Joe Manchin and Henry Cuellar,” said Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats. “You had to be, essentially, Republican-lite, or even just basically a Republican. I think that’s starting to change with this new generation of leadership.”
Cisneros is aware that her campaign could end up serving as a proof-of-concept for those who say that Democrats can better persuade swing voters by being boldly progressive, rather than tacking to the center—but she says that’s not why she’s in this race. “This is the community that I love, and it’s really serious,” she said. She touts her sources of funding—90 percent of which comes from individual donors, which contrasts with the 40 percent of Cuellar’s funding that comes from PACs—and her volunteer-focused campaign. “That’s why it’s important to me to run this campaign well and show that our kind of race—not just in terms of policy, but how we’re recruiting volunteers and funding the campaign—really resonates here.”
While the general election dynamics will be different in TX-35, and the other candidates vying for the party’s nomination are hardly Cuellar-style conservative Democrats, Casar’s campaign still provides a test. He’s long been the most left-leaning member of the Austin City Council, a vocal part of the city’s push toward becoming a so-called sanctuary city, defunding police, and changing its public camping policy. But Austin’s progressive reputation is well established. The question at the heart of Casar’s campaign is whether Austin-style progressive policies hold the same appeal in San Antonio and Hays County. Casar is bullish on the possibility that the shape of the district might actually present an opportunity, rather than a challenge. “By packing so many working-class communities of color into one district, there’s the opportunity to put progressive issues strongly and unapologetically on the table,” he said. “People all across the district are asking about how to restore reproductive rights. People all across the district care about a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage and Medicare for all.” Casar’s hope is that, rather than modulate his message to appeal to a district without Austin’s reputation, he can persuade voters in Bexar and Hays counties to embrace an Austin-style progressive.
At Paper Tiger, the crowd seemed extremely receptive to that sort of message. The applause lines tended to come directly from the working-class left message the candidates tout; crowds of Democrats have cheered promises to fight for abortion access before, but you’ve never seen so many young voters erupt in support of striking symphony orchestra workers. The hundreds of supporters who came out to the venue, grasping screen-printed posters celebrating the event, chanted “Si Se Puede!” with Casar, then erupted as Ocasio-Cortez laid into Cuellar, blaming him for the failure of Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill and the end of the child tax credit. They seemed energized to be part of a burgeoning political movement—one in which the candidates and members of Congress in front of them were their peers, talking about unions they might be able to join and wage increases their friends and families might hope to earn.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to draw a crowd was proved long ago. After the rally was announced, Cuellar’s campaign issued a press release to challenge the idea that her presence would swing the district, reminding those swept up with enthusiasm that “This election is taking place in the 28th Congressional District of Texas—not New York City.” The marquee for Paper Tiger on Saturday morning read, “Fri: Taylor Swift Dance Party” on its top line and “Sat: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” on the bottom. Is the enthusiasm of a crowd of voters to whom both of those events sound like a good time enough to swing a district? With ballots less than a month from being tallied, the progressive theory of Texas will get its first real test soon enough.