Campaigns

Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar gets primary challenger

Immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros interned for Cuellar in 2014

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, one of the more conservative Democrats of Congress, is getting a primary challenge from the left. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Texas Rep. Henry Cueller, one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, is getting a primary challenger who has support from the progressive group that backed New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her bid for office.

Immigration and human rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros, 26, who was an intern for Cuellar five years ago, announced her primary campaign Thursday to unseat the eight-term incumbent in Texas’ 28th District that stretches along the southern border with Mexico and reaches north into San Antonio.

In a news release Thursday, Cisneros labeled Cueller “Trump’s favorite Democrat,” highlighting his A rating from the National Rifle Association; his votes to defund sanctuary cities and women’s health facilities that provide abortions; and his relationship with the Koch brothers, the Wichita, Kansas-based energy barons that have spent millions of dollars supporting libertarian think tanks and conservative political candidates.

Cuellar, who was first elected in 2004, is a former chairman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. He voted with Democratic leadership 76 percent of the time in the last Congress, the third-lowest score among Democrats in President Donald Trump’s first term, according to CQ’s Party Unity Study. He also voted with Trump 67 percent of the time in the 115th Congress, the second-highest score for a House Democrat, according to CQ Vote Watch.

“South Texas votes Democrat because we believed a Democrat would protect our rights and fight for our families,” Cisneros wrote on her campaign website unveiled this week. “But Cuellar is not a Democrat. We need to elect a representative who is accountable to us — not big corporate donors, lobbyists, Trump and Republicans.”

She told the Laredo Morning Times that she first thought about running for Congress when she was an intern in Cuellar’s Washington office in 2014.

“I saw firsthand how he was silent on certain issues,” she told the newspaper. “He took the people of South Texas for granted. It was a very insightful experience. And that’s when I [thought], ‘You know what, that’s going to be me one day running for Congress. I’m going to listen to the issues that South Texans want to be addressed. I’m going to listen to the people, and I’m going to be a fierce advocate for them.’”

Cuellar won re-election to his solid blue seat with 84 percent of the vote last fall and didn’t even face a Republican challenger. (His opponent was a Libertarian.) Hillary Clinton carried the district by 20 points in 2016.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 28th District race Solid Democratic.

Asked Thursday if he was confident he would beat back a primary challenge from the left, Cuellar responded with a simple affirmative.

“We’re going to win,” he said.

Cisneros has the endorsement and support of Justice Democrats, a progressive group targeting sitting Democrats whom it feels do not represent their districts’ liberal tendencies.

Justice Democrats supported Ocasio-Cortez in her successful primary against former Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, but most of their endorsed candidates lost their bids for Congress last cycle.

“Justice Democrats is proud to announce Jessica Cisneros as our first 2020 candidate,” said Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director. “She represents the voices we so desperately need in Congress right now — millennial, working-class, Latina, first-generation immigrant, and dedicating her life to giving back to her community.”

In her launch video Thursday, Cisneros spoke of being the daughter of Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. to pick fruit before founding a trucking business. She was born and raised in the border town of Laredo, Texas, and received her law degree from the University of Texas.

Cuellar warned earlier this year that Justice Democrats would be in for a rude awakening about the ideological makeup of Texas’ 28th District, which he said was not as liberal as outsiders might imagine.

“I’ve been polling and my district is more moderate, conservative Democrats, and I think an outside group that thinks that they know South Texas politics better than I do are going to find [that] out,” Cuellar told reporters in January.

The Texas Democrat has panned liberal organizers who want to unseat him as focusing on the wrong targets.

Referring to another Texas Democrat, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, Cuellar said, “LBJ, when he was also attacked by some liberal folks, he said, ‘What’s the difference between a liberal and a cannibal?’ And the difference was, ‘Cannibals don’t eat their own.’”

Cisneros has pledged not to take any corporate PAC money. She endorsed a progressive slate of policies including a $15 minimum wage, “Medicare for All,” and Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal effort that proposes to revolutionize the U.S. economy’s energy apparatus by shifting it away from gas to sustainable sources.

South Texas is one of the most oil-rich areas in the U.S., and Cuellar has enthusiastically supported continued drilling in his district to prevent job losses. In 2015, he voted to lift a ban on crude oil exports.

“With the Eagle Ford Shale in my district and the Permian Basin nearby, I recognize the great potential for our domestic oil industry, and I also understand the way in which it is being suppressed by this outdated export ban,” Cuellar said in a statement at the time.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

Correction 11:05 a.m. June 18 | An earlier version of this story misstated where Koch Industries are based.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.