Henry Cuellar is a political establishment in South Texas. An FBI raid and a second problem by progressive Jessica Cisneros might topple him


Then the FBI confirmed up in January to go looking his residence right here in Laredo and the constructing that homes his marketing campaign workplace.

Cisneros is dealing with a South Texas political establishment in Cuellar, who served first within the state Home beginning in 1987, then, briefly, as Texas secretary of state in 2001 — appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry. He gained his seat in Congress in 2004 by narrowly defeating a sitting Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, within the major.

However his relationships with Republicans, coziness with firms and conservative-for-a-Democrat voting report have additionally angered highly effective Democratic teams which have now aligned towards him. EMILY’s Listing, Deliberate Parenthood, labor unions just like the Texas AFL-CIO and others have backed Cisneros. The Latino Victory Fund endorsed Cisneros earlier this month.

Cisneros’ marketing campaign started a brand new 30-second tv advert this month with 20 seconds of compiled information clips concerning the FBI investigation. Her allies are equally pouncing: Justice Democrats, a progressive group that backs her candidacy, launched its personal spot highlighting the probe. “After 36 years in politics, Cuellar has modified,” the narrator says.

“It actually strengthens that message that we have been speaking about from the very starting,” Cisneros mentioned in a current interview at a Laredo espresso store. “That is what we have been speaking about when it comes to company PACs, or Republican company pursuits having a corrupting affect on Cuellar’s vote.”

Then there’s the truth that the district strains have barely shifted since 2020 because of redistricting. “Being raided by the FBI most likely is not an excellent first impression” for voters who haven’t lived in Cuellar’s district earlier than, Cisneros mentioned.

Why Democrats turned on Cuellar

Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas, speaks to members of the media in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.

The mounting opposition to Cuellar stems from his standing as essentially the most conservative Democrat within the Home. He has lengthy supported gun rights and the fossil gas business. He was a part of a bunch of lawmakers who pushed congressional management to separate the legislative push for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure invoice from Biden’s broader “Construct Again Higher” agenda. Progressives had sought to tie the measures collectively to extend their likelihood of passage — and had been finally proved proper when the infrastructure invoice handed whereas the Construct Again Higher Act collapsed.

Most infuriating for a lot of Democrats was Cuellar’s September 2021 vote towards the Ladies’s Well being Safety Act — which might codify abortion rights even when the Supreme Court docket reverses its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

Cuellar was the one Home Democrat to oppose the measure, which got here after Texas state lawmakers had handed an anti-abortion regulation that is without doubt one of the most restrictive within the US and the developed world.

“This race is, after all, necessary for Texas, however we’re additionally trying on the final anti-abortion Democrat within the Home,” mentioned Kelly Robinson, govt director of the Deliberate Parenthood Motion Fund. “This can be a race that everybody needs to be watching. What it’s is indicative to what the way forward for the social gathering seems to be like and what the longer term is for advocating for abortion rights.”

The race can also be underneath the nationwide eye as a result of it’s going down in a area the place Democrats had been shocked by their shrinking margins of victory with Latino voters within the 2020 election. The poor efficiency in South Texas and South Florida, specifically, raised new questions on electability and the sorts of candidates Democrats ought to subject in these districts.

Even a few of Cisneros’ supporters say the conservative views of some Democratic-voting Latinos might carry Cuellar to victory.

“With an FBI investigation looming, she has a greater likelihood. However Laredo could be very conservative,” mentioned Jorge Martinez, a 52-year-old retail supervisor and Cisneros supporter in Laredo who attended a current marketing campaign occasion right here for her. “I do know we vote in blue, however our views are very conservative. So I believe it is nonetheless going to be an uphill battle for her.”

Cisneros mentioned it was clear lengthy earlier than Election Day 2020 that Democrats would underperform in South Texas. However she mentioned it isn’t ideology however an voters dissatisfied with those that have been representing them that’s accountable.

“It isn’t a lot that individuals are getting conservative hastily,” she mentioned. “It is extra so that folks have this anti-incumbent sentiment on the high of the ticket the place they’re like, ‘I have been voting Democrat for such a very long time. I nonetheless cannot make ends meet or I am struggling to make ends meet. I nonetheless do not have medical health insurance. We’re in the course of a pandemic, issues bought even worse. I am seeing folks die, proper, on a regular basis, as a result of we’re a Covid hotspot.’ So to them, it was like, ‘I have to attempt one thing new as a result of the established order is not working for me.'”

Whoever emerges out of the first can be a goal for Republicans seeking to take again the US Home this fall. Joe Biden would have carried the redrawn seat by 7 factors in 2020, however GOP operatives see the district as ripe for a flip within the present political setting.

Among the many candidates vying for the Republican nomination are Sandra Whitten, the 2020 nominee who misplaced to Cuellar by 19 factors, businessman and rancher Ed Cabrera and Air Power veteran Steven Fowler.

Cuellar’s low profile

For the reason that FBI search on January 19, Cuellar has saved a low profile within the twenty eighth Congressional District, which stretches from the border metropolis of Laredo to southeast San Antonio.

He has refused to debate Cisneros forward of the upcoming major. And his marketing campaign declined to make the congressman accessible for an interview with CNN. Spokesman James Sonneman mentioned Cuellar has spent current weekends phone-banking with volunteers, however didn’t have any public occasions. A lot of Cuellar’s beforehand vocal supporters both declined to remark or ignored interview requests, even when that they had not backed away from him publicly after the FBI search.

The Democratic Congressional Marketing campaign Committee, which helps the social gathering’s Home incumbents and to which Cuellar has lengthy paid dues, declined to remark and isn’t taking part in an energetic function within the race.

And the San Antonio Categorical-Information, a serious newspaper within the district that endorsed Cuellar in his 2020 major towards Cisneros, backed Cisneros this time round.

Cuellar’s marketing campaign has largely relied on unsolicited mail items and tv adverts to hold him within the wake of the FBI search.

In late January, addressing the seek for the primary time, he launched a video standing in entrance of the home he had grown up in — slightly than the one searched by the FBI — saying that the investigation will present “no wrongdoing on my half.”

“Let me be clear: I am working for reelection, and I intend to win,” Cuellar says within the video.

Progressives goal South Texas district

In the meantime, buoyed by the FBI search in a race that already appeared shut, progressives see a transparent opening.

Sanders endorsed Cisneros on Monday. His transfer got here after Ocasio-Cortez visited Texas final weekend to marketing campaign in Austin for Cisneros and Greg Casar, a progressive candidate within the Democratic major for the close by thirty fifth Congressional District.

Ocasio-Cortez in contrast Cuellar to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has blocked Democratic agenda gadgets within the Senate and refused to assist modifications to the filibuster to be able to advance voting rights laws.

“Lots of people say ‘Manchin, Manchin, Manchin,'” the congresswoman mentioned in Texas. “However we all know it isn’t simply Manchin. who’s serving to him? Henry Cuellar.”

Cuellar’s marketing campaign was dismissive of Ocasio-Cortez’s go to.

Jessica Cisneros is interviewed by CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images at their D.C. office on October 22, 2019.

“The voters will determine this election not far left celebrities who stand for defunding the police, open borders, eliminating oil & fuel jobs, and elevating taxes on arduous working Texans,” Cuellar’s marketing campaign mentioned in a press release emailed to reporters by chief of employees Jake Hochberg forward of Ocasio-Cortez’s go to.

The race is in some methods paying homage to the first ouster of one other anti-abortion Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, in 2020. Lipinski twice confronted a progressive feminine challenger backed by a protracted roster of main Democratic teams — first in 2018, when he narrowly survived towards Marie Newman, then once more in 2020, when Newman claimed victory.

Cuellar survived his first matchup towards Cisneros in 2020, profitable by lower than 4 share factors. However Cisneros, very like Newman was, seems even higher positioned for his or her rematch.

Cuellar is “a company Democrat, working hand in hand with oil and fuel lobbyists once they’re those creating issues just like the Texas freeze in that district,” mentioned Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Dawn Motion, which is holding cellphone banks for Cisneros.

“We have at all times recognized that Cuellar is corrupt indirectly. It did not take an FBI investigation for us to note that,” Sciales mentioned.

FBI search undercuts Cuellar’s assist

Cuellar, although, has deeper alliances on Capitol Hill. He has raised tens of millions for the Democratic Occasion and has lengthy paid dues to the DCCC.

He has additionally constructed bridges throughout the political aisle — at instances infuriating Democrats. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, informed The Texas Tribune final yr after the Home GOP’s marketing campaign arm recognized Cuellar’s district as a goal within the 2022 midterm elections that “Henry Cuellar is my buddy and he is my accomplice.”

“There are higher targets than Congressman Cuellar,” Cornyn said then.

In 2020, Cuellar had vocal Democratic supporters, together with Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who visited the district 10 days earlier than his major election towards Cisneros.

For the reason that FBI search, although, Cuellar’s allies have largely been quiet.

Jen Ramos, a member of the Texas Democratic Occasion’s govt committee who helps Cisneros, mentioned the challenger has the benefit of being a lot better-known now than she was forward of the 2020 major.

“This time round, in 2022, Jessica has title ID,” Ramos mentioned. “She by no means actually went away. She stayed concerned locally, has been actually energetic within the district.”

In the meantime, she mentioned, Cuellar has not modified since 2020.

“FBI investigation apart, after electing Henry in a really public, very costly major election, Henry actually needed to form of reply, what has modified? What has he discovered? And actually, the reply is he hasn’t discovered something,” Ramos mentioned, pointing to Cuellar’s votes towards a pro-labor union measure referred to as the PRO Act and the abortion rights laws.

“These are penalties to actual elections and actual points that constituents within the twenty eighth District are being attentive to,” she mentioned.

Ramos will not be alone in her perception that Cuellar is rising out of contact with the Democratic Occasion in Laredo.

“What’s left of the Boomers that blindly assist Cuellar are fading, and the Boomers that take into account themselves extra reasonable, like my dad, my uncles, my family members, are listening to Gen Zers extra,” mentioned Beatriz Mendoza, a deputy chair of the Democratic Occasion in Webb County, residence to Laredo.

“Gen Z and millennials have gotten extra activated in politics and we’re advocating inside our households for extra progressive candidates,” she mentioned.

Third candidate in race

There’s a third candidate within the major race: Tannya Benavides, who can also be from Laredo.

Whereas organizing with the No Border Wall coalition in South Texas, Benavides mentioned she was continuously requested what her congressman was doing concerning the state of affairs on the border.

“He repeatedly voted to applicable wall cash, underneath the pretense that he did not desire a authorities shutdown. Again and again, I sat in these conferences with congressional delegates up and down the border. And the dialog at all times shifted to, ‘Properly, what’s your congressman doing?’ and ‘What about Rep. Cuellar?’ For me, it turned clear that there is solely a lot you are able to do to prepare. You’ll be able to’t out-organize round elected officers that do not have the political will to result in change of their communities. And that’s the reason I made a decision to launch my marketing campaign.”

Benavides sought to place herself exterior the progressive-versus-conservative body by which many have seen Cisneros and Cuellar.

Pointing to Republican positive factors within the 2020 election amongst Latinos, significantly in South Texas, she mentioned voters within the district ought to deal with electability.

“From what I’ve skilled simply knocking on doorways, there may be a variety of voter apathy. Then you definately see one thing like your congressman being investigated by the FBI and that results in much more disillusionment and disenfranchisement,” Benavides mentioned.

“We can’t deny the pink development in South Texas,” she mentioned. “The fact is that for no matter cause, we’ve not been in a position to determine what strikes folks to vote.”

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