Texas Dem runoff pits progressive Cisneros vs establishment-backed Cuellar
Progressives have rallied around the campaign of Jessica Cisneros for Congress in Texas. AP Photo/Eric Gay

SAN ANTONIO—Once again, this time in a Texas Democratic primary runoff, the party’s progressive wing has rallied around an insurgent candidate, pro-migrant, pro-worker lawyer Jessica Cisneros.

And, once again, the party “establishment,” in the form of its top three U.S. House leaders, is riding to the “rescue” of one of their most conservative members, Henry Cuellar.

And on May 24, just like May 17 in Oregon and Pennsylvania, the progressive has a good shot at victory, but there are a few late wild cards in the race.

The two differ sharply on key issues.

  • Cisneros supports the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act and garnered the endorsement of the Texas AFL-CIO. When the House passed the PRO Act last March 9, Democrats voted for it, 220-1. Cuellar was the “1.”
  • Cisneros supports comprehensive immigration reform, saying she’s seen what the broken U.S. migration policy has done to families at the Texas-Mexico border. She’s gone to bat for those families. Cuellar supports former Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s “Title 42” policy which keeps potential migrants, even those seeking asylum, in Mexico until their cases can be heard here—a process than can take months or years.
  • She supports Medicare For All. He doesn’t, even though Texas, including their 28th District in South Texas, leads the nation in percentage of people who are uninsured.
  • She supports the Green New Deal, despite Big Oil’s domination of Lone Star State politics. She says its pollution harms South Texans. Cuellar is a top recipient of Big Oil money, says one of her key supporters, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt.

And now, late in the race, with a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion showing the justices ready to revoke the constitutional right to abortion, Cisneros supports writing that right into law. The future of abortion rights was a key theme of her final round of broadcast campaign ads.

Cuellar, adopting 46-year-old Republican language, backs abortion only in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. And he was the only Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, the Democratic-backed legislation to write the right to abortion into federal law.

Cisneros and Cuellar also have a history in the district, which stretches from southern San Antonio down through Laredo and beyond.

Cisneros, then 26 and just a year or two after graduating law school,  narrowly lost a primary to Cuellar in 2020. This year, the margin between the two in the March 1 primary was less than 1,000 votes and neither won a majority.

This time, news reports from Texas show her grass-roots organization is more honed. Records show she’s actually outraised him: $4.5 million-$3.1 million. Each had more than $1 million in the bank before the race’s final weekend.

Both Cisneros and  Cuellar benefited from heavy hitters from the party’s two wings. In his case, it was—again—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip James Clyburn. Pelosi and Hoyer had to rescue Cuellar in 2020.

In Cisneros’s case, it’s Sanders, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both D-Mass., and an appearance before the March 1 primary by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., also backs Cisneros.

“Her opponent, one of the very few anti-choice Democrats in Congress, is funded by over a million dollars in corporate contributions from Big Oil companies,” Sanders says.

“What we’re seeing is billionaires in this country who couldn’t care less about working families just pouring huge amounts of money into campaigns to make sure that we do not have members of Congress who are going to fight for economic and racial and social and environmental justice,” he added in a pro-Cisneros video before a May 20 rally for her in San Antonio.

“South Texas, let’s make history and show them that when you have people power, anything is possible,” Cisneros tweeted in reply.

Cuellar not in touch

As a pro-migrant immigration lawyer, Cisneros, 28, says immigration is one example of how Cuellar is not in touch with the district. He claims he is.

“People generally say that about incumbents, right?” she said in an interview with the Texas Tribune. “The boost that Henry claims to get is one that stems from him being an incumbent, not so much someone that is actually representing the values of the district.”

Cuellar counters that by citing the Republican threat in the district. That party, which also has a runoff on May 24, sees the 28th as a potential pickup after former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump shrunk the Democratic margin there in 2020, compared to 2016.

But two other issues—abortion and outside group spending—reared their heads late in the race.

The abortion issue pushed itself front and center with that draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion yanking that constitutional right, written by Catholic and Republican-named Justice Samuel Alito, leaked. The district, the Tribune adds, is heavily Catholic.

The contrast on that issue led Emily’s List, the longtime pro-abortion Democratic campaign finance committee, to invest about $500,000 in pro-Cisneros TV ads as the runoff campaign hit its homestretch. It’s one of a raft of progressive groups, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee

Which brings up one other issue: Outside spending, and specifically spending by a new big player on the right, the campaign finance committee for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC, sometimes vilified as “The Jewish Lobby”—a phrase with anti-Semitic connotations—has been in the right-wing camp for years. Its big givers are big donors, individually, to lawmakers and candidates who align themselves with the radical right-wing Israeli governments of erstwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But AIPAC set up its own campaign finance committee for this cycle and it’s jumped into congressional primaries with a vengeance. It’s mostly backed right-wing Republicans—or taken out tons of TV ads against progressive Democrats whom it perceives as being “anti-Israel,” meaning, in its opinion, anti-Netanyahu. They all, not so coincidentally, happen to be progressives—like Cisneros.

AIPAC’s spent $1.2 million on ads against her. In response, a progressive Jewish committee, J Street—set up to directly challenge AIPAC’s right-wing nationalism—has jumped into the race, too, by fundraising for its campaign finance committee, or PAC.

“We cannot afford to wake up next Wednesday to find out we fell just a few votes short—we have to leave everything on the field,” J Street said.

It called Cisneros and similar hopefuls who back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “current and future champions who are likely to face a deluge of right-wing spending and attacks.

“We cannot let groups like AIPAC—who simultaneously fundraise for extremist, Trump-aligned Republicans—decide the future of American politics and foreign policy. We cannot let their right-wing, hawkish vision dominate the Democratic Party.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.