Jun 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Texas Rep. Cuellar beats back progressive challenger

Rep. Henry Cuellar
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) defeated attorney Jessica Cisneros in a nationally watched race that pitted one of the House's most centrist Democrats against a Squad-aligned progressive, according to AP.

Why it matters: Cuellar's win is a blow to progressives, who saw the South Texas district and its embattled congressman as a prime opportunity to elevate one of their own at the expense of a moderate.

  • It also blunts momentum they had coming off wins also in Texas as well as Oregon and Pennsylvania.
  • Republicans see the district as a top pickup opportunity, but privately believed Cisneros' more left-leaning views made her the ideal opponent to run against.
  • Cuellar narrowly edged out Cisneros in a free-for-all primary in April, but failed to crack the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

The backdrop: The contest was a stark battle between progressives and the Democratic establishment.

  • Cisneros, a 29-year-old immigration lawyer who interned for Cuellar in college, ran on policies like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal with endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the Justice Democrats.
  • Cuellar, who has held the South Texas seat since 2005, touted more conservative positions on issues like energy and border security.
  • Cuellar was backed by the top three Democrats in the House: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn.

Go deeper: Cuellar appeared vulnerable this cycle after beating Cisneros by just 4 points in 2020. An FBI raid and a leaked Supreme Court draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade compounded matters for him.

The big picture: Cuellar's victory comes bolsters moderate and establishment Democrats, who have struggled to suppress progressive gains.

  • Rep. Kurt Schrader is on track to lose to a liberal primary challenger in Oregon, while Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Rep. Summer Lee won Senate and House primaries respectively.
  • Also in Texas, Justice Democrats-backed Greg Casar handily won his primary back in March.
  • But progressives have struggled elsewhere, particularly in House races in Ohio, Kentucky and North Carolina.

What's next: The district is expected to be highly competitive in the fall, having voted for President Biden by just 7 points in 2020.

  • The region shifted rapidly toward Republicans in the 2020 election due to former President Trump's surprising strength with Hispanic voters there.
  • Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), easily won her runoff to be the Republican nominee.
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