South Texas is still home to the hottest primary in the USA

by | Dec 16, 2021 | 2022 Elections, News, South Texas

With good reason, few races this year will receive as much national attention as the Democratic primary for Texas’ 28th Congressional District.

Progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is again trying to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat who has served his South Texas district since 2005 as a staunch anti-abortion, anti-labor lawmaker.

Cuellar developed his reputation as a conservative Democrat early into his congressional career for his Republican-friendly voting record, his endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and for caucusing with the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. 

He became a household name during the Trump era for being one of the Democrats most likely to vote in line with the president’s agenda, whether that was rolling back Dodd-Frank Act banking regulations put in place after the 2008 financial crisis, or voting against strengthening labor laws via the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. 

Even as early as 2006, fellow Democratic colleagues jumped at the opportunity to give money to Ciro Rodriguez, the ex-incumbent of the district unseated by Cuellar and the only serious primary opponent he would face before Cisneros, who as chance would have it, was a former intern of Cuellar. 

Cisneros came within four percentage points of unseating Cuellar in 2020, a result that was proof enough a progressive candidate could win the Laredo-based district while championing policies like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal.

Things look even more favorable for Cisneros this cycle.

In this latest round of redistricting, Texas Republicans made Texas’ 28th Congressional District bluer by absorbing more of Democrat-friendly South Texas and by pushing the district deeper into San Antonio proper. 

The inclusion of a bigger chunk of Bexar County is good news for Cisneros; she doubled the amount of votes Cuellar received there in 2020. 

In fact, the new chunk of southeast San Antonio that now belongs to Cuellar’s district formerly belonged to Texas’ 35th District, Progressive Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s district.

These changes and others were done to give Republicans a bigger edge in the neighboring McAllen-based 15th Congressional District where Rep. Vicente Gonzalez has abandoned ship and instead decided to seek reelection in Brownsville’s 34th District.

Joe Biden carried Cuellar’s district by four percentage points in 2020. It’s now estimated to have a slightly better 7-point partisan advantage for Democrats — a familiar story in the Republican gerrymandering plan that has made districts across the state more partisan and less competitive (save for poor Gonzalez).

That would typically be good news for any incumbent Democrat that wasn’t screwed by the new maps, that is, unless they were a self-described conservative facing a primary against a well-funded candidate making a convincing case to party faithful. 

Unfortunately for Cuellar, Cisneros and her magenta-clad army of volunteers are much more than that. 

Even in 2020, the race between the two candidates could hardly be compared to David and Goliath. The Cisneros campaign, grassroots as it may be, raised more than $2 million after quickly racking up endorsements and support from progressive groups like Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, MoveOn, and major unions like the AFL-CIO, United Steelworkers, and Communication Workers of America. 

This might have produced some scoffs from the Cuellar camp and their $2.7 million warchest composed of donations from beloved longtime Laredo residents like Comcast and the “Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association” (where Rep. Ocasio Cortez’ old opponent Joe Crowley now works). Still, it must have been a serious shock to see just how big of a target Cuellar was after spending his congressional career upsetting members of his own party.

More than $1.7 million in outside spending poured into the race to either support Cisneros or oppose Cuellar, more money than Cuellar had faced in a primary in his entire career. Much of it came from unions and progressive groups, but most of it came from the Democratic abortion rights PAC EMILY’s List which enthusiastically made up $1.2 million of the sum. 

That figure is far larger than the amount raised by the cabal of corporate money that would come to Cuellar’s rescue, including a last minute $84,000 donation by the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, and a $200,000 ad-buy from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who like the fast food chain Wendy’s, pitched in to quiet any talk of a $15 federal minimum wage. 

The race was a unique instance where the regular Democratic fundraising machinery and small-dollar insurgent progressivism rallied around Cisneros to oust what they saw as the weakest link in the U.S. House. 

More importantly, it was a jolly good world-shattering moment for Cuellar, who repeatedly insisted that those he represented were for some reason or another, allergic to ideas like reproductive rights or free healthcare. That was true, but only because few had eagerly tried to prove him wrong, except Cisneros, who came within 2,700 votes of having an opportunity to prove her own theory about what was possible in South Texas.

fernando@texassignal.com | + posts

Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at fernando@texassignal.com

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