The Democratic Party’s ideological battle is taking center stage in Texas

All eyes are on the Democratic presidential primary to see how the drama ends. 

Will primary voters, vying to beat Trump, pick a pragmatic moderate, like former Vice President Joe Biden or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg? Or will they go with the more liberal, upend-the-system campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders?

Similar dynamics are unfolding in a Texas congressional district where 26-year-old immigrant rights attorney Jessica Cisneros is running against a more conservative eight-term Democrat, Rep. Henry Cuellar.

Since announcing her campaign in June, Cisneros has amassed $463,000 and earned several high-profile endorsements, including former President Barack Obama and Sen. Warren, and most recently on Tuesday, the endorsements of two leading pro-choice groups, Planned Parenthood Action and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Cisneros is confident her gerrymandered-to-hell, Latino-majority district can be pushed leftward with ideas like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She has accused Cuellar of relying on “conservative stereotypes” about South Texas in order to explain his voting record. 

“You’re talking about a deep blue district where the Democrat always wins with 60 to 80 percent of the vote, sometimes even higher than that,” Cisneros told the Signal recently. “That means everything is coming down to the primaries, and if you don’t have a challenger, it means you’re basically guaranteed re-election.”

“We’re a safe blue district and yet we’re being represented by one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress,” she said.

Justice Democrats, the kingmakers– or rather queenmakers– of today’s most influential leftwing House Democrats, recruited Cisneros earlier this year after the group promised Cuellar would be their first target of the 2020 primaries. With only two Justice Democrats candidates receiving direct contributions this election cycle, it’s clear the group has made South Texas one of their main staging grounds in an ongoing mission to push the Democratic Party leftward. 

But it may be more of an uphill battle than the race that saw Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knock out a 10-term moderate congressman in New York.

After all, in 2004, Texans elected Cuellar over his more left-leaning opponent, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. Back then, it was no secret Cuellar was a conservative Democrat. He was handpicked by former Texas. Gov. Rick Perry to be the state’s Secretary of State and more tellingly, endorsed George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. In short, Cuellar ran to the right of his opponent– and South Texas voters rewarded him, albeit in a hotly contested and messy election that required a lawsuit and a recount. 

Colin Strother, the long-time campaign manager of Cuellar, told the Signal that South Texas is still a conservative region. Cisneros, he said, had only “lived in the district for five months. Prior to that, she hadn’t lived in the district for eight or nine years. She doesn’t really know anything about the district, the people in it, or their values.”

Strother said policies that Cisneros supports run counter to industries and values that are important to the culture of South Texas, like oil and gas jobs and responsible gun ownership. Strother believes Cisneros’ campaign is not a genuine expression of the political climate in South Texas, but a campaign that has been imposed on the region by Justice Democrats.

Cisneros’ campaign strategy has focused on painting Cuellar as “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” citing a FiveThirtyEight tracker showing Cuellar voted with the president’s agenda 68 percent of the time during the last Congress. But a more comprehensive look at his congressional record shows Cuellar has voted about 15 percent of the time against bills supported by a majority of House Democrats, according to a ProPublica vote tracker.  “I’m very, very proud of Henry’s work in the Congress, and I’m proud to support him — even if I didn’t have a policy of endorsing incumbents,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in September, endorsing Cuellar for re-election.

Cuellar’s campaign said the congressman has never hidden the fact that some of his votes run counter to far-left Democrats or that he’s willing to work across the aisle with Republicans. “When we get an award from NFID (National Foundation for Infectious Diseases), or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we press release,” Strother said. “When we vote to lower taxes and protect the border, we press release.” 

Whatever the case may be when it comes to the political leanings of South Texas, Cisneros’ high-profile campaign does seem to pose a potential threat to the veteran congressman. Come March, Texans will find out if party’s “AOC wing” can play well in Democratic districts that have developed a conservative reputation. 

Texas Signal’s owner and publisher, David Lee, has been a financial contributor to Jessica Cisneros in an individual capacity. He does not participate in editorial or newsroom decisions.

Photo: Henry Cuellar’s Congressional Website/Jessica Cisneros for Congress

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