Abortion Opponent Henry Cuellar Was Buoyed by Democratic Leaders to a Narrow Lead in Texas Runoff

The Texas Democrat was neck and neck with challenger Jessica Cisneros Tuesday night, thanks to support from Democratic leaders and millions in outside spending.

UNITED STATES - JUNE 27: Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, speaks with reporters outside of Speaker Pelosis office about the agreement to take up the Senate border bill on Thursday, June 27, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 2019. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

In early May, as aggrieved civilians mourned the impending end of Roe v. Wade at the hands of a court determined by lifetime appointments, President Joe Biden issued an urging that struck many as hollow: “[I]t will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November,” he said in a statement, which used the word “abortion” only once. But Democratic voters, at the federal level, had for the most part already done that. In the U.S. House of Representatives, only one anti-abortion Democrat remained: Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas.

But despite Biden’s urging, abortion defenders in Texas’s 28th District may have fallen short Tuesday night. The final vote count is not yet in, but Cuellar is well positioned to win the nomination for a 10th term in a congressional career for which he long enjoyed an A rating from the NRA. Those who associate the Democratic Party with reproductive rights and gun control efforts could be forgiven for being confused: Despite his stances, top Democratic House leaders lined up to protect the incumbent.

“On the day of a mass shooting and weeks after news of Roe, Democratic Party leadership rallied for a pro-NRA, anti-choice incumbent under investigation in a close primary. Robocalls, fundraisers, all of it,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday night. “Accountability isn’t partisan. This was an utter failure of leadership.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., played both sides. While she pledged her continued support for an embattled Cuellar in March after he was forced into a runoff and reportedly recorded a robocall backing him in the district, she also sent a last-minute fundraising plea Tuesday to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee email list to help elect pro-choice Democrats. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., however, was firmly in Cuellar’s corner. In a robocall on Tuesday, he described Cuellar as “a staunch advocate for the people’s health care,” the Texas Tribune reported. Two days after the draft Roe v. Wade opinion came out, Clyburn, who says he supports abortion rights, stumped alongside Cuellar at a get-out-the-vote rally event in San Antonio.

Cuellar’s campaign raised more than $3 million to Cisneros’s $4.5 million. He also got a boost from outside groups including the political action committee for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has spent millions so far this cycle against progressive candidates in at least five competitive Democratic primaries.

In Texas, election rules stipulate that in a primary where no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates compete in a runoff. Cisneros came within 1 percentage point of that margin in March. The next month, AIPAC’s PAC, United Democracy Project, poured more than $330,000 into the race to oppose her. The PAC spent another $1.5 million in May, bringing its total expenditure on the race to just under $2 million.

The race could represent the “pro-Israel” lobby’s second major win this cycle, after PACs for AIPAC and its offshoot, Democratic Majority for Israel, spent $1.3 million to reelect Rep. Shontel Brown over Nina Turner in Ohio.


Silicon Valley Billionaire Storms Into Texas to Bail Out Abortion Foe Henry Cuellar

Another group aligned with the pro-Israel lobby and fighting to protect conservative Democrats, Mainstream Democrats PAC, stepped in to support Cuellar. As the National Journal reported, after the draft Roe opinion leaked, Cuellar’s support dipped in several Democratic surveys. But the fledgling Mainstream Democrats PAC made its first independent expenditure in the race to support Cuellar on the day of the leak.

Dmitri Mehlhorn, a top adviser to Mainstream Democrats PAC founder Reid Hoffman, recently told The Intercept that the decision to back Cuellar was informed in part by advice from DMFI head Mark Mellman. According to federal campaign disclosure records, Mainstream Democrats PAC and DMFI share an office.

Spending more than $750,000 to back the incumbent, the PAC ran an ad earlier this month claiming that Cuellar was “under attack by extremists” and had “made it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion.” Cuellar has said he supports abortion access in a few extreme cases, like rape and incest but generally opposes it otherwise. He was the only House Democrat to vote against codifying Roe in September.

Voters who lean more to the center still don’t support overturning Roe or imposing widespread restrictions on abortion, and groups canvassing on behalf of Cisneros sought to peel off those voters in Cuellar strongholds like Webb County, where they started knocking on doors of women under the age of 50. Cuellar won Webb County by more than 37 points, while Cisneros carried Bexar County, and Cuellar’s share of the vote there slipped. Primary turnout in Texas has been historically low, and turnout for Tuesday’s was much lower than that for the March primary.

Team Blue PAC, another committee to protect incumbent Democrats launched last June by House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries and Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., listed the TX-28 primary as one of its “races to watch,” along with Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif. Schrader is poised to lose his primary by just under 20 points, with less than 80 percent of precincts reporting from the May 17 primary.

Cisneros’s campaign earlier this month called on party leaders to withdraw their support for Cuellar, and told The Intercept that refusal to do so showed “cognitive dissonance” in the party’s stated values and its actions with respect to the right to abortion. The Working Families Party helped convene progressive groups to coordinate independent expenditures in support of Cisneros. Groups including the PACs for WFP, Justice Democrats, Communications Workers of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and J Street spent just under $2 million in support of Cisneros and against Cuellar, who came within 4 points of losing his seat to Cisneros in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Ads in the final weeks of the race from an anonymous sender falsely claimed that Cuellar had been cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a probe that included a January raid of his home in Laredo. Cuellar has not been cleared, and the probe is reportedly related to an investigation into business interests in Azerbaijan, where Cuellar has ties with prominent oil executives. Other billboard ads that called Cisneros a “homewrecker” were bought by a firm called Big River Media, which Cuellar’s campaign has used in the past and is run by a major Cuellar donor. His campaign issued a statement and said it did not condone the billboard. The campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The ultimate winner will face Republican candidate Cassy Garcia in the November 8 general election. In early March, the University of Virginia Center for Politics changed its 28th District’s rating from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up,” and said of the change: “[W]e believe the GOP trend in this region is real; because the Democratic runoff is likely to be nasty; and because the overall political environment looks good for Republicans.”

Historically, the region has been heavily Democratic, and Biden carried it by 7 points over Donald Trump in 2020.

Top Democrats have blamed the party’s left wing for stifling Biden’s agenda while allowing conservative members to usher its demise. Party leadership’s fear of backlash is protecting a member who could very well be the deciding vote on federal abortion legislation.

Join The Conversation