The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas runoff tests Democratic divisions over abortion, immigration

The latest battle in the fight for power in the party between centrists and liberals will be decided Tuesday

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) talks to a member of the media during a campaign event, on May 4 in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)
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LAREDO, Tex. — The latest battle in the fight for power in the Democratic Party between centrists and liberals will be decided here Tuesday, in a runoff between Rep. Henry Cuellar and challenger Jessica Cisneros that has pitted top members of Congress against left-leaning activists.

Tens of thousands of primary voters will decide whether to nominate Cuellar, 66, the only antiabortion Democrat in the U.S. House, or go with Cisneros, an immigration attorney who turns 29 on Tuesday. Cisneros has focused sharply in the closing stage of the race on abortion, while Cuellar has kept his campaign pointed toward border security.

Tuesday’s vote will test the potency of these two polarizing issues in a region that has shifted to the right in recent elections. Cisneros, who’s raised $4.5 million, has called Cuellar the “Joe Manchin” of Texas, comparing him to the conservative West Virginia Democrat whose votes have blocked liberal priorities on health care, child care and abortion rights.

“Right now, this moment needs a champion, someone that’s actually going to stand up and fight for reproductive freedom,” Cisneros said in a recent interview in San Antonio, shortly before joining an abortion rights march. “We have close to a 20-year track record that shows that he isn’t that champion,” she added of Cuellar.

Cuellar, who is supported by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and has gotten help on the campaign trail from House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), has warned that liberal Democrats like Cisneros are driving swing voters away from Democrats.

“They’re going to be pushing a lot of people out of the party,” Cuellar said in a recent interview here, after greeting baseball fans, who’d come to watch the hometown Tecolotes play the Rieleros from central Mexico. “I was born as a Democrat. I’ll die as a Democrat. But I see the party changing. It’s like you need to be with me 100 percent, or you’re against me.”

Voters in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, which stretches from San Antonio to the U.S.-Mexico border, have watched momentum shift back and forth between the two candidates since 2019, when left-wing groups first targeted Cuellar for defeat. No candidate won a majority in the primary, triggering Tuesday’s runoff.

Cuellar supports maintaining a Trump-era pandemic health order that the Biden administration continued to use to turn away many migrants at the southern border. A federal judge recently stopped the Biden administration from terminating the order.

The congressman has run TV ads showing Border Patrol agents vanishing — part of an attempt to dramatize what would happen if Cisneros, who once called for breaking up U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, unseated him.

“He’s helped us get what we need,” said Zapata County Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque, a Democrat who has endorsed Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for reelection, but strongly supports Cuellar. If the incumbent were defeated, said Del Bosque, and the Title 42 health order rolled back, “we’d get swamped with illegals.”

Cisneros’s focus has changed since she first challenged Cuellar, with less of an emphasis on immigration, and more on abortion rights. Republicans argue that while Biden carried the district easily, they can compete for it in November.

The Democratic race has also been rocked by external events.

Weeks before the March 1 primary in which no candidate won a majority, FBI agents raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office; the congressman said an investigation would show “no wrongdoing” by him.

And just days before early voting began in the runoff, Politico published the draft of a Supreme Court opinion that would reverse the Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion — elevating the debate over abortion rights in campaigns all across the country.

After the opinion was leaked, Cuellar said in a statement that there “must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother,” though he is personally antiabortion. While he said he was confident that most voters in the majority-Latino district agreed with him, he acknowledged that the timing had helped Cisneros.

As he shook hands inside Laredo’s baseball stadium, Cuellar remarked that Roe had been in place for nearly 50 years, becoming a fresh issue, thanks to the court, “a few weeks before my election.”

The leak clearly boosted Cisneros’s fundraising, at the end of a race where the candidates and outside groups have spent a combined $12.5 million. The Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, which recruited both Cisneros and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to run for Congress, have spent $1.4 million on the race.

But centrist groups supporting Cuellar have spent more. United Democracy PAC, founded six months ago and funded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, put $1.8 million into the district, and Mainstream Democrats, whose major donors include LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, spent nearly $800,000.

On Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) went to San Antonio to rally with Cisneros, telling a crowd that he was “sick and tired of seeing billionaires pour millions and millions of dollars into ugly 30-second ads, trying to defeat good people who are representing working families.”

Sanders, who endorsed Cisneros in both of her runs against Cuellar, has stepped up his campaigning for like-minded candidates and his condemnation of the PACs working to beat them. Among them is Pennsylvania state Rep. Summer Lee, who narrowly won the party’s nomination last week in her state’s 12th Congressional District.

Centrists have found more success in other primaries, including in Ohio, where they twice spent millions to elect Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) over Nina Turner, a former co-chair of Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Last Tuesday, two North Carolina Democrats won primaries over more liberal candidates.

“Far-left groups say they are executing what they call a ‘hostile takeover’ of the Democratic party,” Mainstream Democrats said in a statement to The Washington Post. “A Democratic party defined by the far left will not be able to obtain a congressional majority in 2022 or thereafter.”

At least $50 million has been spent by super PACs in Democratic primaries this year, more than was spent across every Democratic congressional primary in 2018 and 2020 combined. Millions went into Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, where Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) has trailed attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who ran to his left, as votes are counted in the aftermath of their May 17 primary and no winner has yet been declared.

“You’ve run so far to the right that running against you just means I’m a Democrat,” McLeod-Skinner told Schrader, a former leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, in a debate last month.

Cisneros adopted a similar message in Texas, telling voters that the district deserved a reliable Democrat representing it. At her rally with Sanders, Cisneros talked about interning for Cuellar and being surprised to learn that a member of her party could be “anti-immigrant.” Cuellar, at the time, had responded to a surge of child migrants at the border during Barack Obama’s presidency with legislation that would have made it easier to deport them.

Cuellar rejected the idea that his disputes with left-wing Democrats made him a disloyal member of the party. He has talked frequently with Pelosi, he said, and few members raised more to elect House Democrats.

Pelosi has repeatedly defended Cuellar in the wake of the FBI investigation, and she recorded a robocall that calls the congressman “a fighter for hard-working families” who “has brought back millions of dollars to the district.”

The speaker, who like Cuellar is a practicing Catholic, has also argued that while she disagrees with him on abortion, his vote on Capitol Hill hasn’t been as decisive when it comes to abortion legislation.

“He is not pro-choice, but we didn’t need him,” Pelosi told reporters after Cuellar opposed the Women’s Health Protection Act, crafted by congressional Democrats to put Roe’s abortion protections into federal statutes. “We passed the bill with what we had.”

At the baseball game, Cuellar asked voters what their top issue was, and later said how frequently they cited security on the U.S.-Mexico border — and how none cited abortion. Left-wing Democratic activists were trying to oust him, Cuellar said, even though he spoke for those constituents, and they didn’t.

“I like Joe Manchin. Joe Manchin is a friend. I’ll take that as a compliment,” Cuellar said. “They’re trying to demonize another Democrat, they’re trying to demonize me, and I think it’s wrong.”

Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.

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