The large yard around the stage at Smoke BBQ, just east of downtown San Antonio, stayed lightly populated on Wednesday afternoon, during Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar’s get-out-the-vote rally, but many of the few dozen supporters who did show up are influential in the city. Local elected officials, union chiefs, and two members of the state House of Representatives spread out across a cluster of bar tables, with plenty of social distancing. Cuellar, who represents a conservative, Democrat-voting South Texas district that stretches more than a hundred miles from San Antonio to the Mexico border, seemed unbothered by the sparse attendance as he took the stage under a muggy gray sky. During his short, triumphant speech, he touted the federal spending he’s brought to the district, his work on establishing the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Texas, and his support of law enforcement. One topic remained conspicuously absent: abortion. 

On Monday night, Politico published a leaked draft opinion indicating that the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of striking down Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to abortion. Immediately, the spotlight swung onto Cuellar. The eleven-term representative, outspoken in his opposition to abortion, is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, and he is locked in a bitter runoff against the 28-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros. Early voting opens May 16 and Election Day ballots will be cast May 24. 

Cisneros has positioned reproductive freedom as a central issue in her campaign and is endorsed by Planned Parenthood and the abortion-rights advocacy organizations NARAL and Emily’s List. Meanwhile, Cuellar favors stricter legal restrictions on the procedure than anyone else in the House Democratic Caucus, supporting abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or when continued pregnancy would endanger the life of the pregnant parent. His position is “not only protecting the unborn, but it’s also protecting every life from womb to tomb,” he told members of the major national anti-abortion group March for Life, when he accepted an award from the organization in January. “Your defense should be clear and firm and passionate.”

After two decades in Congress, Cuellar has risen to become one of the highest-ranking and most powerful Democrats in the House, with a coveted seat on the Appropriations Committee. Much of the congressional party establishment has lined up behind him: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer have both endorsed Cuellar. Biden has not weighed in on the race, nor has Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, while the former San Antonio mayor Julían Castro has endorsed Cisneros. 

Since the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked, Cisneros’s campaign has garnered more national attention and support. Kristin Ford, vice president of communications at NARAL, said the organization had received calls and emails from across the country in support of Cisneros. “We even got an email into our press inbox, where reporters normally contact us, from someone who was like, ‘How do I phone bank for Jessica Cisneros?’” she said. Some Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate have also argued that the House leadership should break from Cuellar, saying that in 2022, an anti-abortion stance should be disqualifying in a Democratic primary. On MSNBC soon after the Supreme Court leak, Senator Elizabeth Warren made an explicit appeal to those angry about the potential end to Roe: “I actually want to put in a pitch for something everyone watching this can do today—there’s about to be a primary down 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.” 

While Cuellar’s stance makes him an aberration within the national Democratic party, Cisneros is more the anomaly in the Twenty-eighth Congressional District. It’s one of the most Catholic districts in the country—in Laredo, as many as nine out of every ten residents profess that faith. Many reliable Democratic voters support increased restrictions on abortion. Priests give sermons 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. 

When I’ve traveled across the Twenty-eighth, many residents have told me they’re single-issue anti-abortion voters. Specific polling on the issue is hard to come by in this part of South Texas, which has historically languished outside of the national spotlight. What we do know is that the district is more than 78 percent Hispanic, and Hispanic Catholics in this region tend to be more conservative on abortion, as well as on other issues such as gun rights and support for law enforcement and the oil and gas industry. Still, voters’ views on abortion are complex. Consider a set of polls conducted last year by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas in Austin. One survey, conducted in April, found that the state’s “fetal heartbeat bill”—a ban on abortions more than six weeks after conception—enjoyed support from 48 percent of Texas Hispanics, with only 32 percent disapproving. But in another poll taken a month later, 54 percent of Hispanics said that they opposed Texas banning abortion completely. 

Cuellar has argued that his stance mirrors the majority opinion in his district. “Some of my Hispanic colleagues [in the U.S. House] have told me, ‘You’ve got to be careful about the way you vote,’ ” Cuellar told me in 2021. “I tell them, ‘I think I know my district, and I think I know it better [than you do] . . . I’m doing what I think is right, listening to my folks.’ ” 

Indeed, while national Democrats have directed anger at Cuellar after the leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion,  members of the party in the Twenty-eighth have had a more muted response. Across the street from Cuellar’s rally on Wednesday, six protesters quietly held signs, drowned out by the din of a nearby freeway. “FREE ABORTION ON DEMAND WITHOUT APOLOGY,” read one. “All attendees are anti-choice,” read another. Two police officers guarding the entrance to the venue rested their hands on their bulletproof vests and watched the protesters uneasily, but the small group stayed peaceful and relatively quiet. 

Rick Treviño, a local law student, was the first protester to arrive and one of the last to leave. He held a sign that read “Codify Roe,” arguing that Democrats—who, at least on paper, control both chambers of Congress—should pass legislation to protect the right to abortion afforded in the Roe decision. He spoke angrily about Cuellar’s record, particularly a vote the representative cast last year against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which sought to codify the abortion protections in Roe into law. “We’re here because we’re tired of this game; he’s not really a Democrat, and we don’t support him,” Treviño said. 

Cisneros maintains that she has proof that running on a platform of reproductive freedom can win in South Texas: In the March 1 primary this year, where she forced a runoff against Cuellar, she and Tannya Benavides, another left-wing challenger, highlighted abortion rights in their campaigns. Combined, they received slightly more than 50 percent of the vote (46.7 percent for Cisneros and 4.7 percent for Benavides; Cuellar finished with a narrow plurality of 48.6 percent). “In the March 1 primary, a majority of the [Democratic] voters voted for a pro-choice candidate,” Cisneros said in a phone call the day after the Supreme Court draft leaked. She says that in one-on-one conversations with voters in her district, she’s heard that even those with a moral aversion to abortion still respect personal autonomy and feel uncomfortable with the government weighing in on Texans’ personal lives. “Like most Americans, who overwhelmingly support Roe, they believe that health-care decisions should be left up to patients and their doctors,” Cisneros says.  

She adds that, even if the issue isn’t a political winner in her district, maintaining access to the procedure is crucial for its residents. In April, a woman in the Twenty-eighth was charged with murder after performing a self-induced abortion—a charge that was eventually thrown out by the Starr County prosecutor, but only after the woman had spent time in jail. 

While the abortion issue is complicated locally, it’s been nothing but a winner for Cisneros outside her district, where she has raised a majority of her campaign cash. Organizations such as NARAL and Emily’s List have provided the maximum donation of $5,000 to her campaign, and have advertised on her behalf, connecting her with small-scale donors across the country. They’ve also contributed time: in the week before the March 1 primary, NARAL sent five experienced organizers to the district to help canvas and drum up support. 

Cuellar, for his part, has gained support from national anti-abortion groups such as March for Life, but has still drawn the ire of other major anti-abortion organizations that exclusively support Republicans—he has an “F” rating from the Susan B. Anthony List, the strident anti-abortion advocacy group.

In the wake of the Supreme Court leak, Cisneros and her campaign appear hopeful that they can use the issue to drive a wedge between Cuellar and some of his most high-profile supporters, such as a Pelosi. On Wednesday, Cisneros released a pointed statement calling on “Democratic leadership” to revoke their endorsements of Cuellar. “With the House majority on the line,” she said, “he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk.”

The leadership, however, has thus far stood by Cuellar. On Wednesday, majority whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina congressman who is the third most powerful Democrat in the House, joined Cuellar onstage at Smoke BBQ. In February of last year, Clyburn successfully whipped almost every House Democrat into supporting the Women’s Health Protection Act, but the measure failed to advance in the U.S. Senate. There was only one nay vote in the House: Cuellar. After the draft Supreme Court decision leaked earlier this week, Clyburn tweeted outrage at the prospect of Roe being overruled: “The whole notion of politicians controlling those decisions is beyond the pale.” But on stage, Clyburn doubled down on his Cuellar endorsement. “When I call Henry Cuellar my friend, I really mean it,” he said. 

Though he did not mention abortion rights directly, Clyburn did obliquely respond to the criticism he had already begun to receive for standing in support of Cuellar. “When people tell you you need to agree on everything, I do not agree with Henry Cuellar on everything,” he said, joking that he frequently disagreed with his late wife but still maintained a good partnership. “We need to sit down with people who we do not agree with and try to find common ground, to do what is necessary to move this country forward.”

With House leadership sticking by Cuellar, it might be too late for the leaked draft opinion to swing the race. Cisneros has been able to raise more than $3 million in contributions since announcing her 2022 campaign, but she’s running out of time to spend that cash in an effective manner before the May 24 runoff election. In some ways, the race margins might prove a litmus test: if the abortion issue gives Cisneros a significant bump, it could signal an important shift in Hispanic sentiment on abortion.

Of course, in a runoff that is expected to be tight, it’s possible any issue that moves voters on the margins could have an outsized effect. Cisneros campaign staffers have told me they’re focusing heavily on first-time and irregular voters. But those highly motivated by the abortion issue have likely already chosen their side in the race. As Cisneros herself acknowledged, the stakes were already heightened even before the Supreme Court leak. 

If Cisneros wins, her Republican challenger (the GOP primary also went to a runoff) may seize on her stance as a wedge issue, and many anti-abortion voters who would have otherwise marked “Democrat” on their ballot may indeed shift to the right. Whether that would be enough to shift the race is far from certain. Even with Republicans’ much-hyped gains in South Texas, Democrats still seem dominant in the district. In 2020, Cueller beat his GOP challenger by an almost 20 percent margin.

If Cuellar wins the runoff, he might also prove a weakened candidate in November. His rally on Wednesday was his first major campaign event since the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided his campaign office and home in January, in a mysterious inquiry into a group of U.S businessmen and the government of Azerbaijan. While Cuellar has not been named a suspect in the case, photos of FBI agents raiding his house would provide easy fodder for GOP attack ads. 

Cuellar, for his part, has made the bet that a strong anti-abortion stance is still a winner in South Texas. After his rally, he told reporters he wasn’t worried that the Supreme Court news would hurt him. “It’s just another issue—new issues always come up during elections,” he said.