Even Republicans who have cast Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as their favorite new left-wing target would love to catch some of the lightning in a bottle that’s made the New York congresswoman a national phenomenon. At the recent South by Southwest conference, in Austin, the unabashedly progressive 29-year-old drew a larger crowd than any of the half-dozen 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in attendance, most of whom have been national figures far longer than AOC.
Her rise from political neophyte to power player began less than a year ago, with a stunning David-versus-Goliath unseating of a longtime incumbent in a June 2018 primary. Now the same group of young activists from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign who boosted Ocasio-Cortez are looking to replace other moderate and conservative Democrats across the country with leftist candidates. Their first target? U.S. representative Henry Cuellar, of Texas’s Twenty-eighth Congressional District.
“His votes and his rhetoric are not upholding Democratic values,” says Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of the political action committee Justice Democrats, which launched its “Primary Cuellar” campaign in January. In arguing why the eight-term congressman must go, Rojas points to the frequency with which Cue-llar votes with President Donald Trump—about 60 percent of the time, more than almost any other House Democrat—despite representing a district that favored Hillary Clinton over Trump by nearly 20 percent in the 2016 election.
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The Justice Democrats say they believe, contrary to the results of recent elections, that the values of Texans aren’t significantly different from those of New Yorkers—and, furthermore, that those values are progressive. “In poll after poll, Americans everywhere want change in immigration, health care, climate change, and income inequality,” Rojas says.
Their effort is something of a proxy war for a larger conflict that has erupted within the Democratic party about the right way to mobilize voters and take the White House back from Trump in the 2020 election. Did Clinton lose the presidency because she failed to excite progressives by not tacking far enough to the left or because she didn’t hew close enough to the center to attract moderates? And is the answer to that question the same in all parts of the country?
In New York, the Justice Democrats helped AOC beat Representative Joseph Crowley, a House Democratic leader who thought he was so secure in his seat that he was positioning himself as a successor to then embattled Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Yet even a rudimentary understanding of their differing politics makes clear that Cuellar’s slice of South Texas and AOC’s corner of the Bronx and Queens are culturally worlds apart. Despite encouraging signs for progressives—Beto O’Rourke’s close finish behind Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate and the flipping of two congressional districts in the 2018 midterms—the Justice Democrats may be deluding themselves into thinking that they can replicate in Texas’s Twenty-eighth District the success they achieved in New York’s Fourteenth. Worse still, some worry, their desire to shift the party sharply to the left could undermine the Democrats’ renewed attempts to turn the state blue.
Henry Cuellar doesn’t shy away from being photographed next to slabs of bacon. Picture after picture in one of his past e-newsletters shows the Democrat smiling alongside local officials holding giant mock checks that tout the many millions in federal funds he’s brought home to his district: more than $7.5 million for Laredo International Airport; $3.6 million for Webb County border enforcement; $2.7 million for Texas A&M International University; and $1.5 million for restoration of the Mitchell Lake ecosystem, in San Antonio.
Texas’s elephantine Twenty-eighth runs along several hundred miles of the border, including Cuellar’s hometown of Laredo, and stretches north to the suburbs of San Antonio. Since first winning election to represent the district, in 2004, the 63-year-old congressman has embraced an old-fashioned approach to keeping his far-flung constituents happy. As the saying goes, he shows them the money.
Cuellar is a long-entrenched figure in South Texas politics. He represented Laredo in the Texas House from 1987 to 2001, earning a reputation for working closely with Republicans. In 2001 Governor Rick Perry appointed him secretary of state, a coveted but largely ceremonial office. After just nine months in that role, Cuellar ran against Henry Bonilla to represent the Twenty-third Congressional District, which then included Laredo. He lost to the incumbent Republican 52 to 47 percent. After the state’s controversial 2003 redistricting, which shifted Laredo into a more Democratic-leaning district, held by Ciro Rodriguez, Cuellar ran a bruising primary challenge to Rodriguez. He squeaked out a narrow victory and hasn’t faced a close election since. In 2018 his only opponent was a Libertarian, whom he trounced with more than 84 percent of the vote.
To the dismay of progressives like the Justice Democrats, Cue-llar’s a Blue Dog Democrat. He’s a fiscally conservative deficit hawk with a mixed record on abortion rights. On border issues, he often stakes out positions that aggravate immigrant-rights activists. In 2014 he and Republican Texas senator John Cornyn cosponsored a bill that would have made it easier to deport Central American children quickly, a measure O’Rourke called a “very shortsighted, inhumane, irrational response” to an influx of migrants.
Indeed, Cuellar is well out of step with the Democratic party’s current leftward drift. Last fall, he promoted and attended a fundraiser breakfast for a Republican: Representative John Carter, of Round Rock, who went on to narrowly beat a Democratic up-and-comer, Afghanistan war veteran M J Hegar. Cuellar’s explanation for backing Carter, whom he called “a dear friend” and with whom he serves on the House Appropriations Committee, was the need for greater bipartisanship in today’s political climate. He bristles at the notion that this makes him disloyal, adding that he’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for other Democrats. “People need to look at what I’ve done for the party,” he says.
He also faced criticism after a former staffer filed a complaint with congressional officials in October stating that she had been fired as his acting chief of staff when she revealed she was pregnant. Cuellar denies the allegation.
Because they believe his policies aren’t favored by most of the voters in the majority-Hispanic Twenty-eighth District, the Justice Democrats think Cuellar is vulnerable to a challenge.
In March, they fired their first shot: a full-page bilingual ad in the Sunday editions of the McAllen Monitor and the Laredo Morning Times. It openly invited someone, anyone, to step forward to “Primary Cuellar.” With a picture of Trump on one side and an unflattering picture of Cuellar on the other, the ad copy declared, “From the Colonias to Laredo, from the Valley to San Antonio: We all deserve better!”
It’s early days yet—the filing window for next year’s primary runs from November 9 to December 9—but so far no challengers have publicly declared a run against Cuellar. The Justice Democrats claim to have received the names of roughly fifty potential candidates and will continue to solicit others. Rojas says the PAC’s members will work with South Texas activists to select a candidate over the next two or three months.
Bolstering the Justice Democrats’ case that the 77 percent Hispanic district would welcome more liberal representation in the House was the 59 percent of the vote O’Rourke captured there in his campaign against Cruz last year, an echo of Clinton’s strong performance in 2016. But some political observers doubt the PAC’s ability to find someone who can mount a serious challenge to Cuellar, particularly because the heart of the Twenty-eighth District is Laredo and Webb County, an area that’s in many ways more conservative than the rest of the border region.
It’s also where Cuellar and his family are powerful figures. His younger brother, Martin, is the Webb County sheriff, and his sister Rosie Cuellar-Castillo, a former municipal court judge, was elected county tax assessor-collector in November.
The son of migrant workers, Henry Cuellar has an appealing story to tell: the local boy who made good by graduating from Georgetown University and earning a master’s degree from Texas A&M International University, as well as a law degree and a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s even got an elementary school in Laredo named for him.
Sergio Mora, who hosts a political podcast in Laredo and was the Webb County Democratic party chairman from 2008 to 2012, hasn’t heard of anyone locally who is thinking of taking on Cuellar. “In Laredo, not a lot of people are ever going to say they’re against Henry or even think about it out loud,” says Mora, who believes a challenger is more likely to emerge from another part of the district, like the Rio Grande Valley or near San Antonio.
Democratic consultant Christian Archer, of San Antonio, believes that the Justice Democrats have picked the wrong fight based on a misunderstanding of the Twenty-eighth and Texas as a whole. The Justice Democrats, he says, “probably don’t know Laredo . . . These are farmers and ranchers and people who grew up carrying a gun.” In a January press release announcing the primary challenge, the PAC highlighted Cuellar’s A rating from the NRA, an achievement much of his district wouldn’t consider a negative.
Even some at odds with Cuellar’s positions think he’s likely untouchable. “I certainly have all sorts of reasons to think Henry Cuellar doesn’t act in the best interests of his party,” says Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic PAC, citing Cuellar’s 2004 primary challenge to Rodriguez, which was not welcomed by the party establishment. “The biggest mistake people outside Texas make is thinking that every Latino district is the same. Cuellar’s district is moderate to conservative based on its history and culture.”
One of his more liberal colleagues, Representative Filemon Vela, of Brownsville, who is stridently anti-Trump, supports Cuellar’s continued service in Congress. “I don’t think anyone works his district as hard as Henry,” says Vela, who nevertheless applauds the “spirited democratic debate” the Justice Democrats have brought to the party.
The Democratic establishment is not nearly so welcoming, implying that challengers to sitting members of Congress will get in the way of its aggressive attempts to flip six Texas districts in 2020. In late March, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued what amounts to an incumbent protection policy, stating that it “will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus.”
The Justice Democrats’ Rojas responded in a tweet, “This is akin to price fixing. It’s using financial leverage to stop and threaten primary challenges and shows how @dccc and House leadership operate from a place of fear, rather [than] strength. It’s not surprising, but certainly unfortunate.”
DCCC spokesperson Brooke Go-ren told Texas Monthly, “The DCCC’s core mission is to fortify the new House majority, and we are committed to supporting and protecting all of our incumbents to do so.”
Vela is disturbed by this “stupid” new policy. “With these primaries, any group that has a set of beliefs supporting one candidate or another ought to be able to do that. No party organization should attempt to punish that,” he says. “This is too vindictive.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic party, likewise disagrees with the DCCC. He doesn’t believe the Justice Democrats’ efforts pose any threat to the party’s plans because the Twenty-eighth District itself is already “deep blue” and is likely to remain so, regardless of the nominee who emerges from the primary. However, he says that Cuellar, whom he considers a friend, is a successful fund-raiser whose influence can help the state party in its own attempts to win a majority in the Texas House. Ultimately that help might yield more Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation, since the next Legislature will control redistricting after the 2020 census.
Meanwhile, another of Cuellar’s congressional colleagues—Ocasio-Cortez herself—told NPR in February that even though she’s not directly involved in efforts to launch primary challenges against Democrats, “we have a responsibility to keep the door open and support avenues that allow working-class people to run.”
Cuellar merely expresses amusement about the Justice Democrats’ campaign, referring to the PAC as a “New York group” despite its nominal Knoxville, Tennessee, home base. “What’s New York have to do with South Texas?” he says, later noting that he has $2.4 million on hand for his reelection effort at the end of the first quarter of 2019. “Let New York audition all those people if they want to . . . I’m focused on my work.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Can Out-of-State Liberals Oust a Texas Democrat?” Subscribe today.