Progressives take aim at Democratic leadership over support for centrist candidates
House leaders’ support for Henry Cuellar over Jessica Cisneros in Texas elections has left progressives seething
Texas officials have still not declared a winner in the state’s 28th congressional district, where incumbent Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar currently leads progressive lawyer Jessica Cisneros by 175 votes out of roughly 45,000 ballots cast.
But as progressives wait to see who will win the runoff race, they cannot help but think of what might have been if House Democratic leaders had not come to Cuellar’s assistance. Cuellar secured the endorsements of the top three House Democrats, and the congressman’s campaign was also propped up by millions of dollars in super Pac spending aimed at attacking Cisneros.
Progressives complain that House leaders’ intervention in primaries like Cuellar’s is making it harder for their candidates to succeed and they worry about the repercussions of the party embracing centrist candidates with controversial stances on issues like abortion rights and gun control.
The potential victory of Cuellar last week, who has previously received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, is all the more painful for progressives given the recent mass shooting at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The massacre, which unfolded roughly 100 miles away from Cuellar’s district, claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers.
With a margin this small, it’s clear that a pro-choice, anti-NRA Democrat could have easily won if it was not for the full-throated support of Speaker Pelosi and the party establishment in Washington for anti-choice, pro-NRA Henry Cuellar. Hours after the shooting last Tuesday, progressives watched with dismay as Cuellar crept ahead of Cisneros in the vote count.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vented her frustration at House leaders for aiding Cuellar, attacking her colleague’s policy positions and his potential involvement in an FBI investigation. (Cuellar’s home and campaign office were raided in January, but the congressman has denied wrongdoing, and his attorney claimed he was not the target of an investigation.)
“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,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “Accountability isn’t partisan. This was an utter failure of leadership.”
Progressives see a pattern in how party leaders and center-left groups are targeting their candidates in primaries. In Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, super Pacs spent millions trying to prevent the nomination of state representative Summer Lee, although the progressive lawmaker ultimately won her primary. Democratic congressman Kurt Schrader, who had attracted criticism for blocking key parts of Joe Biden’s agenda, still won the president’s endorsement and secured the backing of House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Schrader officially lost his primary to progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner on Friday.
Progressives argue that Cisneros would have easily cruised to victory as well if the Democratic establishment, particularly House leaders, had not invested so heavily to assist Cuellar. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, House speaker Nancy Pelosi recorded a robocall for Cuellar, while majority whip Jim Clyburn traveled to Texas to campaign alongside his colleague. Clyburn’s trip to campaign for Cuellar, who does not support abortion rights, came two days after the supreme court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade was leaked to the public.
“With a margin this small, it’s clear that a pro-choice, anti-NRA Democrat could have easily won if it wasn’t for the full-throated support of Speaker Pelosi and the party establishment in Washington for anti-choice, pro-NRA Henry Cuellar,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats. “Why is all of Democratic party leadership more heavily focused on defeating an anti-NRA, pro-choice Democrat than defeating Republicans in the midterms?”
But allies of Pelosi and Clyburn see nothing nefarious in their actions to help candidates like Cuellar, given that endorsing incumbents has long been a standard practice for party leaders.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who serves as a senior adviser to the DCCC, said House leaders’ strategy was practical as the party attempts to hold onto its narrow majority in the chamber. Republicans only need to flip a handful of seats to regain control of the House, and they are heavily favored to do so, given historical trends and Biden’s underwater approval rating.
“At the end of the day, it’s about 218. That’s the number of votes needed on any given day to get anything done,” Seawright said. “This is all about preserving and keeping the majority.”
The shifting politics of Cuellar’s district also adds more complexity to the race.
Texas’s 28th congressional district, which covers the eastern outskirts of San Antonio and stretches down to the US-Mexican border, was previously considered a Democratic stronghold. But the district has become more conservative in recent years, and election forecasters consider it to be a toss-up race for November. With a difficult general election ahead, some Democrats say a more conservative member of the party like Cuellar, who has held the seat since 2005, may have a better chance at winning.
“Mr Cuellar has been re-elected on many occasions in that district,” Seawright said. “And I think that means that the voters of that district – Democrats, Republicans [and] independents alike – have made a decision that he is a person they want representing the interests in Washington.”
But supporters of Cisneros’s campaign take issue with that argument.
Ezra Oliff-Lieberman, the electoral organizer in Texas-28 for the climate group Sunrise Movement, said Cisneros would be the stronger candidate in the general election because of her ability to energize and mobilize young voters. Since Sunrise endorsed Cisneros last year, the group has made more than 700,000 calls to support her campaign.
“We were knocking doors in 100-degree Texas heat because we are excited about and inspired by the vision that Jessica is fighting for that says we don’t have to live in fear of gun violence, that we can have freedom to make decisions about our own bodies,” Oliff-Lieberman said.
Looking ahead to the general election, Oliff-Lieberman added, “It’s going to be hard, and we need a grassroots base to win. And I think Democratic leadership is squandering any hope of us winning by alienating young people.”
Oliff-Lieberman noted that young voters helped elect Biden and secure the party’s majorities in Congress, and he accused House Democratic leaders of ignoring the needs of a key constituency.
“It’s so abundantly clear what young people want and how Democratic leadership is willing to do the exact opposite,” he said. “I feel really angry that we have put so much into fighting for a better world and to try to put a stop to so many of the crises that we’re facing. And it feels like the people who are standing in the way of that are people who supposedly are on our side.”
Oliff-Lieberman and Cisernos’s other supporters have said they will fight to get every vote counted in Texas-28, expressing hope that Cuellar can still be defeated. But regardless of the outcome in Texas, progressives are encouraged by the victories they have already seen in primaries this year with candidates like Lee and McLeod-Skinner. They are ready to keep up the fight, even if Democratic leaders attempt to stand in their way.
“If anything, I think this primary season so far is just emboldening our movement to build more power, to keep going to get stronger,” Oliff-Lieberman said. “And we know that the establishment is scared.”