After a bitter, drawn-out primary race, nine-term congressman Henry Cuellar declared victory early Wednesday morning in a primary runoff against Jessica Cisneros, the immigration lawyer who had challenged him from the left in Texas’s Twenty-eighth congressional district. Cisneros has not conceded, and votes were still being counted on Wednesday. While the Associated Press has not declared a victor, Cuellar leads by a narrow 177 votes with an estimated 99 percent of votes counted. Barring late-breaking results or a recount, Cuellar does seem likely to again represent the Democrats in the November general election in the district, which leans blue and spans from the border city of Laredo all the way north to the San Antonio suburbs.
Cuellar’s eagerness to declare victory reflects how taxing and protracted the contest has been. More than just a continuation of the March 2022 primary, the runoff election on Tuesday night was the culmination of a three-year battle between the candidates, ever since Cisneros first decided to challenge him in 2019.
That year, Justice Democrats, the progressive organization that had recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run in the Bronx and Queens in 2018 against ten-term congressman Joe Crowley, looked for other conservative, establishment Democrats to challenge across the country. It settled on Cuellar, a pro-gun, anti-abortion deficit hawk who had voted with then-president Donald Trump’s agenda more than 60 percent of the time. Searching for a local challenger to take him down, Justice Democrats interviewed multiple community leaders in Laredo before finally choosing someone in Brooklyn: Cisneros, a then-25-year-old newly minted immigration lawyer who was a fellow at a nonprofit public defense firm. Cisneros was born and raised in Laredo, in a working-class neighborhood called Sal Si Puede—“leave if you can.”
For the last three years, Cisneros and Justice Democrats have sought to prove that a campaign propagated from a national progressive movement could still find authentic roots in South Texas soil. There were strong signs it was possible. In 2020, much attention was paid to a rightward shift in South Texas, where Donald Trump found surprising success. But there was another, less appreciated story: in the Democratic presidential primary that year, Senator Bernie Sanders nearly swept the region, winning all but one South Texas county. The story, to some observers, was less that South Texans were shifting to the right and more that they wanted change—and economic populist messaging, from both the right and left, was working.
While Cisneros came within four points of beating Cuellar in 2020, and within three points in the March primary that led to Tuesday’s runoff, the results on Tuesday—if they hold—were the closest yet. At one level, they speak to the competitiveness of both campaigns, but they also reflect the unwieldiness of the district, which has been heavily gerrymandered to pack Democratic voters together: Cuellar won easily in Laredo and counties along the border, while Cisneros dominated in counties a hundred miles north, in and around San Antonio.
Over two campaigns Cisneros raised an impressive $4.46 million, and won high-profile endorsements from progressive icons such as Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, while Cuellar maintained the support of House Democratic leadership. Cisneros succeeded in running a local race backed by a national movement, much as Ocasio-Cortez did in the Bronx. But Laredo is not New York City, and much of the district has been dominated historically by a unique fronterizo species of social conservatism, which has allowed “Blue Dog” centrist Democrats like Cuellar to keep a tight grip on local politics. While a younger generation may be drifting toward Cisneros, Cuellar appears to have managed to finish ahead in the vote totals, however narrowly, for a third time.
To say Cuellar is an “institution” in South Texas understates his influence. Born to Mexican American migrant workers in the border city of Laredo as the first of eight siblings, Cuellar has spent four decades quietly becoming the most powerful Democrat in Texas (and less quietly, one of the most conservative Democrats in D.C.). He has the blessing of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who bestowed upon him a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee. In his hometown, his grip on local politics is so tight that many residents know Cuellar by a title other than congressman: the King of Laredo. His influence is everywhere. When residents in the Twenty-eighth went to polling places to vote during Tuesday’s election, some of them lined up inside Dr. Henry Cuellar Elementary.
If the vote tally holds, Cuellar will have managed to pull off a win, after experiencing every campaign manager’s worst nightmare. In late January, FBI agents raided the candidate’s campaign office and personal home. The details of the federal raid, conducted just weeks before the primary, remain murky and befuddling. The FBI has only acknowledged that it was investigating dealings between a collection of U.S. businesspersons and the government of Azerbaijan. While Cuellar has not been indicted, and has proclaimed his innocence throughout, the raid seriously hobbled his campaign, with many assuming it was dead in the water.
Cuellar’s ability to perform well despite the front-page photos of FBI agents pouring into his home speaks to the power of his base in South Texas. Despite his own supporters in the national Democratic party, he consistently used Cisneros’s out-of-state support to paint a negative picture of her candidacy: a left-wing organization from New York had found someone in Brooklyn with Laredo roots to run a faux grassroots campaign in South Texas. Cuellar’s most solid broadside was that Cisneros had spent too much time outside of the district and was out of touch. At one point, Cuellar’s campaign sent out thousands of mailers with a photo of Cisneros in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, taken during the nine months she spent at her fellowship in New York. The implication was clear: Jessica Cisneros may have grown up in Sal Si Puede, but ella ya salío. She’s not from here anymore.
Perhaps no single issue represents the national-local Democratic divide in South Texas as much as abortion, a topic on which Cisneros and Cuellar remain bitterly divided. In early May, an explosive leak of a draft majority opinion from the Supreme Court revealed that the court was on the precipice of revoking Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case establishing the right to get an abortion. Immediately, the spotlight turned onto the Cisneros-Cuellar race. Cuellar is one of the last House Democrats who is anti-abortion, opposing the procedure in all cases, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the survival of the mother. Cisneros, meanwhile, placed “unhindered” access to abortion at the center of her campaign.
Many of Cuellar’s Democratic colleagues lambasted the congressman, and argued that the House leadership should break from him, saying that in 2022, an anti-abortion stance should be disqualifying in a Democratic primary. On MSNBC soon after the leak, Senator Warren made an unambiguous appeal: “I actually want to put in a pitch for something everyone watching this can do today—there’s about to be a primary in Texas [for] Henry Cuellar’s seat. . . . If you’re mad when you listen to this, send Jessica Cisneros ten bucks; if you can afford more, send more.” Cisneros, meanwhile, put out an explicit call for the Democratic leadership to revoke their endorsements of Cuellar. Pelosi nonetheless stood by him, and majority whip Jim Clyburn even stumped for him in San Antonio just three days after the leak.
Still, Cuellar seemed nervous: while he continued to call himself an “anti-abortion Catholic,” he made a rare concession and acknowledged that he does not want the procedure banned entirely. “My faith is clear: abortion must be rare & safe,” Cuellar wrote in a statement.
But many locals weren’t so sure that abortion would be the winning issue for Cisneros that some national politicians hoped it would be. Cuellar’s conservative stance on abortion, while out of step with national Democrats, is more at home in a city like Laredo, where as many as nine out of every ten residents are Catholic. Even many Democratic voters support increased restrictions on abortion. Priests give sermons every Sunday calling for an end to legal protections for the practice; billboards on the highway from San Antonio to Laredo show pictures of babies above slogans that read “Heartbeat at five weeks”; and on many weekends, so-called marches for life wind their way through downtown streets.
In January, I sat down with Abel Prado, the executive director of Cambio Texas, a progressive advocacy organization headquartered in the Rio Grande Valley, soon after Cisneros had announced her second campaign against Cuellar. He said he did not begrudge her taking a strong stance on abortion access—he understood that it was a moral issue for her. “But you don’t have to put it on every mailer,” he said. He was confident that repeatedly bringing up the issue would hurt her, when she had other, less complicated platform points she could focus on—chief among them economic justice.
That Cisneros could win so close to 50 percent of the vote is proof that her stance on abortion, by itself, was not outright disqualifying for a candidate in South Texas, even if it might have lost her some votes. Of course, it wasn’t just abortion. There are a bevy of issues—gun rights, oil, Border Patrol—on which many Laredo Democrats fall to the right of blue voters elsewhere in the country. The result Tuesday night seemed to confirm that many Democrats in the district, in particular those of an older generation, still want a “Blue Dog” like Cuellar representing them.
Elsewhere in South Texas, there were signs that progressives are building support. To the southeast of Laredo, in the Fifteenth District, anchored in McAllen, Michelle Vallejo, a thirty-year-old business owner, led Ruben Ramirez, a Cuellar-style Democrat, by 23 votes at press time. Vallejo, while not supported by Justice Democrats, had run on a left-wing platform that included Medicare for all, green energy jobs, taxing the 1 percent, and supporting unhindered access to abortion.
The progressive movement has indeed laid roots in South Texas, but they appear to be just too shallow to withstand Cuellar. For now, the politics of massive social investment and economic justice haven’t won here near the border, far from the liberal coasts—at least not yet.