Jessica Cisneros’s bid to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar could reveal where Democrats stand with Latinos — and how much support progressives have.
The upcoming primary in Texas’s 28th District is poised to answer two big questions for Democrats: What do they need to do to shore up their odds with Latino voters? And, which flank of their party will have momentum in 2022?
The contest is a rematch between immigration attorney and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros and nine-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. It’s taking place in a South Texas district that includes the suburbs of San Antonio, the city of Laredo, and rural pockets of the Rio Grande Valley, and it is expected to be tight.
It also comes on the first big primary night of the 2022 midterms, in a year when things are looking particularly bleak for Democrats. President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, pandemic and inflation concerns, and historic trends are putting their congressional majorities in danger, and putting a premium on contests like this one.
Looming over the contest is the FBI raid of Cuellar’s home and campaign office in January. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing, but the investigation has fueled uncertainty about his candidacy that Cisneros has capitalized upon. His campaign declined Vox’s request for an interview.
To earn the seat, Cisneros won’t just have to defeat Cuellar, a top House Democrat on the Appropriations Committee and a South Texas institution, but also the Republican Party, which has targeted the district as one it thinks it can flip. If she succeeds, however, it could send a clear message about progressives’ ability to win in a traditionally moderate district — and indicate that liberal policies resonate with many Latino voters.
“We knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” Cisneros told Vox. “One of the things that we have going for us this time is that we’re not starting from scratch.”
Meanwhile, a Cuellar victory would suggest that a moderate incumbent who is anti-abortion and supportive of hardline immigration policies is still compelling to a number of Democrats.
“I’ve been delivering results year after year while my opponent is backed by the defund the police movement and has pledged to slash the border patrol budget, making our communities less safe and costing our area thousands of jobs,” he wrote recently in a social media post.
We’ll get a new read on Texas Latino voters after many swung right in 2020
In 2020, Republicans made gains among Latinos in South Texas districts that were once considered Democratic strongholds. This midterm election cycle is presenting the first test of whether those gains hold.
“[Latinos] don’t have a fully formed Democratic identity,” Carlos Odio, co-founder and senior vice president at Equis Labs, a progressive polling firm focused on Latino voters, told Vox. “You have a segment of the vote that is as swingy as you get in the current moment.”
The race will highlight whether liberal positions win with this particular bloc of Latino voters, who make up the majority of the constituents in the district and have historically backed moderate Democrats. Although this district has long been Democratic, areas within it shifted toward Republicans last cycle.
Biden won the previous version of the 28th District by just 4 percentage points in 2020, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 20 percentage point margin four years prior. And Zapata County, one of the counties in the district, even flipped from Clinton to Trump in 2020.
But it’s not clear whether the shift in border districts is a permanent political realignment. Polling organizations have found that Latinos who voted for Trump were more often first-time or infrequent voters without a strong party affiliation. That means that they could just as well be persuaded to vote for a Democrat this time around, assuming that Democrat has the right message.
Some Democrats believe more progressive policies on issues like policing pushed certain Latino voters away; the results of the Cisneros-Cuellar matchup are likely to be read as a referendum on that idea.
The TX-28 race mirrors Democrats’ national debate about how progressive the party should be
Texas’s 28th District is more moderate than the districts where progressives have succeeded in knocking off incumbents in recent years. Biden won the newly drawn version of the district by just 7 points in 2020, compared to the more than 60 points he won by in the Missouri district where now-Rep. Cori Bush felled a longtime incumbent that year.
A Cisneros victory would demonstrate that progressives are able to win a primary in places that aren’t solidly blue, and it would be a testament to the ability of such challengers to connect with a range of Democratic base voters.
“It would really be a David and Goliath moment,” says Mike Siegel, the political director of progressive advocacy group Ground Game Texas.
Cisneros is running on many of the same policies she promoted in 2020 including Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, and the PRO Act, legislation that protects workers’ right to organize. She’s also been a vocal proponent of abortion rights as well as immigration policies like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“We [haven’t been] getting the proper representation that our district needs in terms of investments in health care, and good paying jobs … [and] in reproductive freedom,” Cisneros told Vox. “Any time we can expand health care, that’s something that would be very welcome for people here.”
Cuellar’s policy positions are effectively the inverse of Cisneros’s. He is unapologetically anti-abortion, has opposed Democrats’ measures to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, and has teamed up with Republicans pushing for stricter border controls as the number of migrants increased there early in Biden’s tenure.
Cisneros has also gone after Cuellar’s willingness to take donations from oil and gas companies, and corporations that run detention centers along the US-Mexico border. The recent FBI investigation has provided an opening for Cisneros to further bolster this line of attack, since it’s reportedly centered on Azerbaijan, a country known for its oil production.
“I’m not taking a cent of corporate PAC money,” Cisneros has emphasized in campaign advertising.
As part of his campaign, Cuellar has stressed his years of congressional service, and his track record of delivering funding for key projects like the construction of a federal courthouse. Prior to his time in Congress, Cuellar was Texas’s secretary of state as well as a Texas state representative. And his family has deep roots in the region: Cuellar’s sister is a former municipal judge and his brother is the sheriff of a county in the district.
“I have built a reputation as a bridge builder in Congress and my commitment to working with anyone to get things done has brought results,” Cuellar noted in a Twitter post.
Does Cisneros really have a shot?
Cisneros came within about 3,000 votes of beating Cuellar in the 2020 primary. In some ways, she’s better positioned to close that gap this year.
She has better name recognition, and has been doing in-person events and door-knocking, unlike during her first run when she was trying to introduce herself to the electorate primarily through phone banking and social media at the height of the pandemic. She also has a stronger fundraising operation. And the FBI investigation of Cuellar has made him a much more vulnerable candidate, with one internal poll from Republican candidate Ed Cabrera showing that Cisneros was up 7 percentage points on Cuellar after the FBI raid.
But Cisneros is also up against some strong headwinds, including the district’s historically conservative Democratic leanings and likely low turnout.
Cisneros has dubbed Cuellar “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” That suggests that people who have voted for him before might not warm to a candidate like Cisneros who has been endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and out-of-state progressive groups like the Justice Democrats.
Because there are no presidential candidates at the top of the ticket this year, turnout will also likely be down relative to the 2020 general election.
The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a Latino voter mobilization group, has predicted that turnout will drop among Texas Latino voters this year in part due to the state’s restrictive new voting laws. And Latino turnout in Texas was already less than ideal: Though there was growth in the electorate in 2020, about 40 percent of those eligible to vote did not turn out.
But Cisneros sees that as an opportunity to bring new voters into the fold who might be more open to her progressive policies.
“This area has been reliably Democratic for a very long time. But that’s also led a lot of incumbents to just take this community for granted. We’re offering an alternative vision of what South Texas can look like,” Cisneros said.
A Cisneros win could buoy other progressives running against incumbents in other places, such as Rana Abdelhamid in New York, who’s taking on Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and Summer Lee in Pennsylvania, who is vying for Rep. Mike Doyle’s open seat. The Justice Democrats, a group dedicated to supporting progressives that has endorsed Cisneros, has backed five other challengers and a host of incumbents.
“When Jamaal Bowman won, it really boosted Cori Bush’s chances of winning. If Jessica wins, I definitely think it will be a boost to other progressive candidates,” said Waleed Shahid, the Justice Democrats’ communications director.
Cuellar and Cisneros face different challenges in the general election
The Cook Political Report rates the 28th District as blue-leaning. But Biden’s small margins in 2020 revealed some worrying fault lines for Democrats.
The 2020 results have emboldened the Republican machine in South Texas. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, has identified the 28th District as one of three border districts they’re targeting in 2022. New congressional maps approved by the GOP-controlled state legislature last fall have made the district more competitive for Republicans. And while just one Republican challenged Cuellar in 2020, there are seven Republican congressional candidates vying for their party’s nomination this year.
Cuellar’s biggest problem, should he be the nominee, is preventing the FBI investigation from overshadowing his record and deep ties to the district.
For her part, Cisneros would have to figure out how to appeal to older, moderate voters (who are more likely to vote in midterms) after winning on a liberal platform.
“It would be an uphill battle for her with respect to a Republican challenger because it is a conservative district,” said Sharon Navarro, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “She’s going to have to shift from very progressive to more moderate issues if she wants to cast a wider net.”
To an extent, Cisneros is already doing that. And she said the fact that she came so close to defeating Cuellar in 2020 suggests that there is already a “huge appetite for change.”
Harnessing that dissatisfaction with the status quo is a strategy Democrats need to replicate throughout Texas, where catering to moderates hasn’t been helping the party win elections, said Tory Gavito, the Texas-based president and co-founder of the Democratic donor group Way to Win.
“I have been in Texas politics for a very long time,” she said. “If we could win with the electorate we’ve got, we would have won by now — and we haven’t.”