May 24, 2022

Election results: Abortion key in Henry Cuellar-Jessica Cisneros S. Texas primary

WASHINGTON — Nine-term Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo was battling for survival Tuesday night in a fierce South Texas congressional race that drew huge attention as a bellwether for the nation’s mood on reproductive rights.

Cuellar, a rare anti-abortion Democrat, faced Jessica Cisneros, an immigration lawyer who nearly ousted him two years ago.

Just after midnight, with a lead of 177 votes out of 45,211, Cuellar – who won his 2002 race by just 58 votes, after two recounts – declared victory, though Cisneros did not concede.

“The votes are in, the margin will hold. We have won by 177 votes,” he tweeted.

With the Supreme Court poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 28th District became a battleground between the party’s establishment and insurgent progressive wings.

Cuellar opposes gun restrictions, promotes oil drilling and free trade, and echoes GOP complaints about border security. Groups that support abortion rights, gun control and green energy policies injected millions to help the 28-year-old challenger, a former Cuellar intern who insisted that he’s far too conservative for South Texas—and for the party.

The parade of high-profile out-of-state liberals who descended on the Laredo-to-San Antonio district hoping to topple Cuellar included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

“This race truly does go beyond South Texas,” Cisneros said.

Cuellar had long insisted that he’s a better fit than outsiders realize, shrugging off grumbles from fellow Democrats that he’s too far right and too eager to collaborate with Republicans on issues such as border security and trade.

“What the progressives in Washington, D.C., don’t understand is that much of our Hispanic population in South Texas is pretty conservative from a cultural standpoint, and Henry fits that district,” Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican who has partnered with Cuellar on border security and immigration, told Texas reporters last week.

Outside groups poured in $3.6 million to help Cisneros, and $2.6 million to help Cuellar, according to tallies from campaign finance tracker Open Secrets. That’s on top of the $3 million Cisneros’ own campaign spent at last count, and $3.5 million from Cuellar – an uncommonly expensive contest.

The winner will face Cassie Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz who won a GOP runoff that attracted far fewer voters. Cruz spent lavishly from his campaign to help her, and she defeated Sandra Whitten, a preschool director who ran as a “red-blooded MAGA Patriot.”

Although he’s the most conservative Democrat in the House, Cuellar has accrued influence within the party after a long tenure on the Appropriations Committee, and as a prominent critic of Donald Trump’s border wall and trade policies.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., left, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, hold San...
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., left, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, hold San Antonio Spurs NBA basketball jerseys at a Cuellar campaign event May 4, 2022, in San Antonio.(Eric Gay / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Rep. Henry Cuellar in the May 24, 2022, primary runoff,...
Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Rep. Henry Cuellar in the May 24, 2022, primary runoff, speaks to the media before a San Antonio rally on Feb. 12, 2022.(Eric Gay / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

He’s served as a chief deputy whip, or vote-counter, and House leaders rushed to his aid.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi taped last minute robocalls. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland stumped at his side. So did No. 3 leader Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest ranking Black member of Congress, who’d famously rescued President Joe Biden in the 2020 primaries.

As ballots were being counted and the nation reeled from the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, Ocasio-Cortez vented about House leaders backing a “pro-NRA” Democrats and treating Congress as an “incumbent protection racket.”

Oil and gas interests and an assortment of lobbyists sent a torrent of cash to help Cuellar defend his seat, a task that became trickier when the FBI raided his home and office on Jan. 19, apparently as part of a probe into influence-seeking by Azerbaijan.

Cuellar insists he is not a target.

That took a backseat to abortion rights in the primary.

NARAL Pro-Choice America deployed four staffers to knock on doors. It recruited hundreds of volunteers, and spent in the six figures on mail and other advertising.

“The fight for reproductive freedom and abortion access is not won or lost in one single race,” the group’s senior national political director Ryan Stitzlein said by phone a few hours before polls closed. But “the stakes for reproductive freedom in Texas and across the country are higher than ever.”

Cuellar was the only House Democrat to vote last fall against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify federal protection for abortion rights even if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe. That vote took place after Texas’ Senate Bill 8 took effect, drastically curbing the number of abortions in the state.

“When SB8 was empowering civilians to be bounty hunters against those who administer abortion…Cuellar stood with Texas Republicans allowing the most draconian enforcement and against abortions,” said Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, on a call with reporters Friday.

Two years ago Cisneros fell 4 percentage points short in the primary.

On her second try, on March 1, Cuellar edged past her by fewer than 800 votes but didn’t get the 50% needed to avoid the runoff.

Sanders, stumping with Cisneros on Friday, told KENS-TV in San Antonio that “billionaires who don’t know Texas” were trying to buy the district for their ally Cuellar.

In a last-ditch email blast to supporters, Cisneros denounced Pelosi for supporting Cuellar, writing: “Every anti-choice politician is a threat to our reproductive rights.”

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