May 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dems' push to center abortion rights faces first test

Photo illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios. Photos: Alastair Pike/AFP, Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images

Tuesday’s congressional runoff between two South Texas Latino Democrats with opposing views on abortion could shape how their party fares in November.

The big picture: Democrats bracing for a loss of the House majority in November are rallying voters nationally around fears the Supreme Court is about to overturn abortion rights — but in a general election, this message may not work as well in socially conservative districts with Democratic incumbents.

Details: Incumbent Henry Cuellar, a Catholic who opposes abortion, is in a tight race to keep his seat in Congress for a district that includes San Antonio and parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. Cuellar has the backing of party leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.).

  • His opponent, Jessica Cisneros, is an immigration lawyer and progressive who is backed by U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Between the lines: Cuellar beat Cisneros by just 2 percentage points — 1,005 votes — in a March primary for the South Texas seat, leading to a runoff.

  • Cisneros has zeroed in on abortion rights since the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. She called on Democratic party leaders to drop their support for Cuellar over his anti-abortion rights stance.
  • Cuellar said that while he opposes abortion, he doesn’t think there should be a total ban.

The intrigue: Latino voters in South Texas voted Republican in higher numbers in 2020. But Latinos also skew very young, and young people are much more likely to support abortion rights than not, according to the latest study from Pew Research Center.

But, but, but: Inflation, jobs and the economy are the issues really driving voters, said Daniel Garza, founder and president of The LIBRE Initiative, an organization that advocates for smaller government.

  • Garza said South Texas "is trending more towards centrist policies and rejecting ultra-progressive ideas that are making it harder to find work, earn an honest living, cope with inflation, and provide for their families."
  • Inflation was a top concern among Latinos surveyed in a late March Axios-Ipsos Latino Poll in partnership with Noticias Telemundo

What they're saying: The Cuellar-Cisneros battle isn't just about progressive wing of the party versus the conservative one, Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha said.

  • "It's the party fighting with the people who run the party," Rocha said. "Our party is gonna change a lot in the next five years."

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