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Rep. Henry Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros locked in tight battle in Texas

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) speaks to supporters during a campaign event on May 4 in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) holds a razor-thin lead over his progressive challenger, immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, in a primary runoff that has roiled House Democrats.

The race in Texas’s 28th Congressional District is among the most closely watched in the country, with the candidates and outside groups having spent a total of $12.5 million.

The Associated Press said Wednesday evening that it was too early to call the contest. As of 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuellar led Cisneros by 175 votes, or 0.4 percentage points, out of 45,209 ballots counted.

The AP said it will continue to track the count and consider declaring a winner whenever election officials confirm they are done tabulating all outstanding ballots.

“This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted,” Cisneros said in a tweet, about a primary that fell on her 29th birthday. “This fight isn’t over. It was a blessed 29th birthday.”

Cuellar declared victory in a statement early Wednesday morning — even though the race has not yet been called. “The results are in, all the votes have been tallied — I am honored to have once again been reelected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress,” he said.

Cuellar has been boosted by support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), while Cisneros has the backing of a new generation of progressive Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

According to the Texas secretary of state’s office, the trailing candidate can request a recount within two days after all votes are tallied. The margin of victory must be less than 10 percent of the leading candidate’s vote total. Cisneros’s campaign has not yet commented on whether it might pursue a recount.

The 175 votes that separate Cisneros and Cuellar represent less than 0.8 percent of Cuellar’s current vote total of 22,692.

House Democratic leaders have typically supported incumbents, including ones who hold policy positions that are less mainstream than a majority of the caucus. Pressed on why he still supports Cuellar even though he remains the only Democrat to oppose abortion access, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) — who endorsed the congressman in January — said earlier this month that Cuellar represents “his district well” and that there is room in the “diverse party” for “diverse opinions.”

Cuellar’s positions are in line with the rightward leanings of his district, especially his hometown of Laredo, where many Hispanic voters espouse conservative views about religion, family and social values.

The dynamic has allowed him to largely remain in the good graces of party leaders even after voting against labor protections and legislation protecting a woman’s right to choose, as well as remaining outspoken about protecting the oil and gas industry and Border Patrol agents amid cries from liberal colleagues.

“He is not pro-choice, but we didn’t need him. We passed the bill with what we had,” Pelosi said about Cuellar at her weekly news conference earlier this month.

Besides members of the liberal “Squad,” other Democratic members have privately said that Cuellar should be ousted for no longer representing the party. But many others, including leadership aides, have argued that a Cisneros win could result in Republicans flipping the seat in November for the first time in decades.

The primary battle is only the latest tight race for Cuellar. In his first bid for Congress in 2004, the conservative Democrat eked out a 58-vote primary victory over incumbent Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez.

More recently, Cisneros nearly toppled Cuellar in the 2020 Democratic primary, trailing the incumbent by 2,690 votes, or about three percentage points. She forced him into Tuesday’s runoff by holding his vote total to less than 50 percent in the March primary.

Cisneros, a first-generation Mexican American lawyer like Cuellar, once interned for the congressman. She said repeatedly during the campaign that Cuellar, who opposes abortion rights and is a critic of some of President Biden’s immigration policies, was out of touch with the 28th District.

The race has underscored the divisions within the Democratic Party and is being viewed as a test of whether left-leaning candidates, who have struggled in recent elections, can prevail over more-moderate Democrats.

Justice Democrats, a liberal group that backed Ocasio-Cortez in her first congressional run in 2018, has been an early supporter of Cisneros’s campaign. Cisneros has also received the support of Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund and labor unions, including the Texas AFL-CIO. She backs policies that often stand at the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum from Cuellar’s, who is considered one of the most conservative members of Congress.

Cuellar has run on the promise that he would strike bipartisan deals in the House, telling voters in a recent campaign ad that he wanted to “build relationships with both parties.”

The race also comes on the heels of an FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters in January. The congressman has declared his innocence and vowed to remain in the race. The FBI has declined to discuss the probe.

In a tweet Tuesday night, Ocasio-Cortez expressed outrage that House Democratic leaders had thrown their support behind Cuellar given his stance on abortion rights, gun control and other issues. The primary came on the same day that a gunman wearing tactical gear and carrying a rifle killed at least 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in the town of Uvalde, Tex., in the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade.

“On the day of a mass shooting and weeks after news of Roe, Democratic Party leadership rallied for a pro-NRA, anti-choice incumbent under investigation in a close primary,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Robocalls, fundraisers, all of it. Accountability isn’t partisan. This was an utter failure of leadership.”

Cuellar has in the past received high ratings from the National Rifle Association, but he has supported background checks.

Cuellar is the only antiabortion Democrat in the House. After the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion on abortion rights earlier this month, Cuellar said in a statement that although he is personally antiabortion, there “must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.”

While Cisneros had focused the final weeks of her campaign on arguing that her district should be represented in Congress by a lawmaker who would protect a woman’s right to choose, it’s a message that may not resonate in Hispanic communities that lean conservative on the issue.

Cisneros has managed to maintain a competitive advantage against Cuellar this time around, especially since voters remember her from 2020 and more appear open to a change in leadership.

At the same time, Republicans made inroads in the Rio Grande Valley in the 2020 election, a move on which the national party has since capitalized by establishing a GOP-run community center in Laredo and recruiting Latinas to run against long-term Democratic incumbents like Cuellar and Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

Hispanic GOP members and aides acknowledge that many in the community have turned to the party in part because they feel the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left.

Cuellar alluded to this in a recent interview, telling The Washington Post, “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.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.