Henry Cuellar tries to fend off progressive challengers in his re-election bid

Congressman Henry Cuellar is fighting for his political life in the upcoming Texas Democratic primary, hoping to prevail in the rematch against progressive immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, a former intern at his office which fell to less than 3,000 votes from to beat him in 2020.

File photos of Rep. Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros

Photos separated by Getty Images

There is also another candidate in the race for the 28th congressional district, educator Tannya Benavides. And another development could play a role in the primary: In late January, the FBI raided Cuellar’s campaign office, part of a investigation related to Azerbaijan and several American businessmen. Cuellar, who declined to speak to CBS News for this report, said at the time that he expected the investigation to “prove no wrongdoing.”

Early voting is underway for the March 1 Democratic primary.

Although South Texas has proven to be more Republican-friendly in 2020, the 28th District – which winds from San Antonio to Laredo and through more rural areas including Jim Hogg and Duval County – has been redesigned to 2022 in a way that gives the Democrats a slight advantage. The new neighborhood is predominantly Hispanic and covers more area than the state of New Jersey.

South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley are targeted by Texas Democrats, after seeing Republicans make gains in this region in 2020 and a state representative in the region change sides in November 2021.

This primary is an early test of the appeal of progressive candidates challenging moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats, like Cuellar, in competitive Democratic-leaning precincts. Cisneros has the support of Justice Democrats, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who traveled to San Antonio last week to rally for Cisernos and Greg Casar, who is standing running for Congress in the 35th District of Texas.

Texas has a runoff system for its primaries, so the winner will need to get 50% support to win the nomination. Otherwise, the top two voters will advance to a second round on May 24.

Cuellar, running for his 10th term, is among the most conservative House Democrats in the caucus. He has worked with Republicans to bolster border security and is staunchly anti-abortion. One of his first public appearances after the FBI raid was to receive a “Legislator of the Year” award from the organization “Democrats for Life”.

His campaign appears to have been caught off guard by Cisneros in 2020, but it has picked up speed this time around, with more door-to-door, more early mailings, TV and digital ads.

Cuellar’s campaign indicates that these efforts had already been undertaken before the FBI investigation. A federal grand jury in Washington DC is investigating.

Since the raid, Cuellar has kept a low profile but said he was cooperating with the investigation and confirmed that he is still a candidate for re-election.

His campaign called the impact of the FBI’s investigation into the race “minimal,” given Cuellar’s standing in the district and what he was able to do for the district through his role on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“We are 100% confident that this will show that there was no wrongdoing. We’ve actually had a lot of support and people have almost doubled their support because they know him, he’s been a part of the community for a long time,” said a member of Cuellar’s team.

Laredo is Cuellar’s support base – where other family members are also active in public service. His brother is the Webb County Sheriff and his sister is the former county assessor-collector.

At a campaign event for gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke in Laredo, voters were split on Cuellar but did not count the FBI investigation as a strike against him.

“Politicians are forced to collect all this money continuously in order to support their offices, their travels, the work that they do,” said Melissa Cigarroa, a Cuellar supporter. She added: “It doesn’t surprise me that sometimes people can take advantage of it, but you want someone who can do his job, and he’s done Laredo so much good.”

Laredo native Joey Medina isn’t surprised by the investigation.

“I’m just tracking candidates who don’t accept political contributions from corporations and big donors,” he said.

Medina’s family voted for Cuellar in 2020, while he alone voted for Cisneros. He said they are leaning towards Cisneros this year because they see how rising prescription drug costs are impacting his battle with diabetes.

“It forces people to really think about who they’re supporting much earlier in elementary school,” Cisneros said of the FBI raid after a canvassing kickoff in Starr County. “[The raid] really cemented what we’ve said since day one, that we’re the best choice. People don’t want someone who’s been corrupted by corporate PAC money.

Cisneros is banking on increasing his name identification since his last run, as well as adding southeast San Antonio left in the district during the redistricting, to help him beat Cuellar this time around.

From January 1 to February 9 Cisneros outmoded Cuellar over $560,000, though Cuellar still had an $860,000 cash advantage.

Cisneros says she told her team to ‘not get distracted’ by the FBI raid and focus on painting Cuellar as part of a broken ‘status quo’, but Cisneros believes the raid could help him in his campaign, especially with new voters added via electoral redistricting.

“It’s not a good first impression for a lot of voters that the incumbent was raided by the FBI so close to the election,” she said. “If he was really delivering what he was saying, there’s no reason he’d come 2,700 votes away from almost losing to a 26-year-old candidate with no identity in the district.”

Cisneros, who interned for Cuellar in 2014made Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and raising the minimum wage the central ideas of his campaign, while attacking Cuellar on his anti-abortion stance.

Cuellar’s campaign argues Cisneros’ nomination would increase the risk of the district falling under Republican control. Border counties make up about two-thirds of the district, and immigration enforcement resonates with its constituents.

Cuellar has twice voted with Republicans on bills that fund the border wall, although he argued he created exceptions for areas in his district. One of his campaign announcements hits Cisneros on her stance on immigration, warning that she would leave the district with “open borders, leaving us less safe.”

After gains for the party in South Texas in 2020, Republicans believe that district is in play, even though its political terrain shifted slightly to the left in the redistricting. Rural Zapata County, which is in the district, went from voting for Hillary Clinton by 33 points in 2016 to voting for Trump by about 6 points in 2020. Cuellar won the county by more than 30 points in 2020 .

There are seven Republican congressional candidates for this district after only one, Sandra Whitten, ran against Cuellar in 2020. The National Republican Congressional Committee has signaled that he will compete in this district, as well as the 15th district. from neighboring Texas, a seat opened on the left by a Democratic congressman Vicente Gonzalez.

The Republican National Committee has made a multi-million dollar investment in “RNC Community Centers” for minority communities. Three are in South Texas, including one in San Antonio and one in Laredo.

“Henry and I are pretty close friends. He does a lot of good in Laredo, he takes care of the border. I hope he survives his primary,” said Bill Young, the former Republican county chairman. of Webb, at an RNC Community Center event “But – it’s going to be a battle for him in the primary and overall.”

Republican candidate and businessman Ed Cabrera said a recent internal campaign poll conducted after the FBI raid had Cisneros up 7 points over Cuellar.

Benavides noted that Republicans were targeting rural counties.

“So much has happened since 2020 that we, as a Democrat, will be judged,” Benavides told CBS News at an event in Zapata County. “They see this as a window of opportunity. So I’m also going to be where the Republican Party is.

New electoral laws passed by the Republican Texas Legislature, particularly restrictions on unsolicited mail-in ballot requests, reduced polling station locations, and new voter ID requirements, may also have an impact that may be more obvious in the outcome of the general elections, but which are already making a difference. Webb County Democratic Chair Sylvia Bruni said she was told 20% of mail-in ballot candidates in the county were rejected.

“Democrats tend to like mail-in voting. It was very intentional, very targeted for the Democratic voter,” Bruni said of the new election laws.

Ocasio-Cortez, in remarks at a South Texas campaign rally last weekend for Cisneros and Casar, tied Cuellar to moderate House Democrats who pushed to pass bipartisan infrastructure bill without the Build Back Better social spending plan.

Progressives view Democratic opposition to Build Back Better from centrist members as a powerful campaign issue.

“There’s been a series of lessons this year getting elected and not actually delivering on the commitments associated with supporting the president’s agenda,” said Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the progressive Indivisible Group, which spends $60 000 dollars in mailers, announcements and direct contact with voters in the district.

“When I talk to people and they say, ‘I’m upset about [Kyrsten] Sinema, well, if you’re upset about whether Democrats have the cohesion to move forward together on a bold agenda, there’s action you can take now. And these are races like Rep. Cuellar’s,” she added.

Early voting in the state runs from February 14 to February 25. The last day to request a postal vote is February 18.

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