Why the Democratic Establishment Has Rushed to Support Henry Cuellar

Gun Rights

Days after U.S. representative Henry Cuellar finished a bitter, drawn-out primary race against human-rights lawyer Jessica Cisneros, he was irate. The ten-term representative from Laredo had almost lost his congressional seat and was ready to harangue the progressive organizations that had buoyed his 29-year-old opponent. “Somewhere down the line,” he told a reporter, “somebody came up with a standard that if you don’t agree with me, then you’re against me . . . Go and open up a dictionary and see what the word ‘progressive’ means: Open to new ideas—not only their ideas.” National Democrats, he added, “need to understand that we all have our own issues that we understand better, and, like I told some people, ‘Hey, let me be me and I’ll keep this seat as a Democrat.’ ” 

Cuellar hasn’t been wrong so far. His primary races in 2020 and 2022 were both hard-fought—he eked out wins by just thousands and then hundreds of votes, respectively—but, come November, Cuellar doesn’t see close races. Last year, he easily knocked down his well-funded Republican challenger Cassy Garcia by a margin of 13 percentage points. And to say that Cuellar is an institution in South Texas is an understatement: He has spent nearly four decades arguably becoming the most powerful Democrat in the state—earning his nickname as the “King of Laredo”—and he enjoys a plum seat as the sole Texas member of his party on the House Appropriations Committee. So if anyone knows what it takes to win the Twenty-Eighth, a sprawling district that spans more than 150 miles of the border and stretches to the East Side of San Antonio, Cuellar is the one. 

It still disappointed progressive operatives two weeks ago when the new guard of national Democratic leaders, including House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, who is more liberal than many of his House colleagues, swore fealty to Cuellar—six months ahead of the 2024 Texas Democratic primary, and before any potential challengers have announced bids against him. “Henry Cuellar is an accomplished advocate for the people of South Texas who is working hard to build an economy from the middle out and the bottom up,” Jeffries wrote in a statement, endorsing him. The rest of the top echelon, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and former House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, also announced their support.

From one perspective, the endorsement isn’t exactly shocking. Cuellar long enjoyed the support of Pelosi and other former party leaders, and as I’ve written before, changes in party leadership, no matter how historically significant, don’t always yield big changes in practice. Black leaders in the last Congress, including Jeffries, are also more politically moderate than their caucuses and are often anointed into leadership roles because there’s an implicit understanding that they’ll work under the system they’re in rather than trying to transform it. 

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But the timing of the endorsement is odd. Cuellar has no notable general election challenger, let alone a primary one, and it’s early in the campaign season for endorsements. Pelosi didn’t give a full-throated backing of Cuellar in the 2020 race until September 2019 (and at that point, Cisneros had already announced a challenge). Then, in 2022, after Cuellar’s home and office were raided as part of a federal investigation whose purpose remains unclear, Pelosi didn’t reaffirm her support of him until after that year’s March primary. This year, leadership hasn’t endorsed yet in two key South Texas races that figure to be much more hotly contested than Cuellar’s reelection bid—those of Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen and Michelle Vallejo in Edinburg.

Politicos are reading the early endorsement as a clear sign that the Democratic leadership is trying to head off a third consecutive primary challenge from the left. “I would view this early signal by Jeffries as, ‘Hey, let’s not spend Democratic money against the guy that’s not going to lose,’ ” said Christian Archer, a Democratic strategist based in San Antonio. “My guess is that this is really a signal, maybe to even Cisneros herself, that all of the Democrats are going to support Cuellar—with money and support—and that anyone who decides to run against him now will be running against the new leadership of the Democratic Party.” 

But Cuellar, long a target of the left, has staked out policy positions to the right of most of his party mates. He has voted against expanding federal abortion rights and believes the procedure should only be available in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother’s life. He has also been endorsed and heavily financed by the National Rifle Association, which opposes just about every gun safety measure introduced in Congress. According to FiveThirtyEight, he voted with former president Donald Trump 75 percent of the time during Trump’s first year in office—more than any other House Democrat. 

While Cuellar’s team has recently strived to pep up his image as being more friendly to some progressive causes, including those backed by labor unions and organizers, the attempts at a makeover have had a limited effect. One day after Jeffries’s endorsement, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America issued a joint statement assailing Cuellar’s anti-abortion record. Others joined suit. “The Democratic Party purports . . . to be the party of the working class. It purports to support freedom of choice, access to abortion care, and a livable wage,” said Pedro Lira, Texas state director of Working Families Party, which endorsed Cisneros both in 2020 and 2022. “Yet here we have a congressman that doesn’t support these things. And I’m kind of asking myself why they continue to put up with his antics?”  

Why the rush to endorse? Democrats need to ensure their incumbents’ victories in order to more easily win back control of the House, and since he first came to office in 2004, Cuellar’s been a mostly reliable team player for the party—one who prefers the inside game to the spotlight. One of the major reasons Cuellar wins his general-election contests by wide margins is that his anti-abortion, pro-gun rights views, and his tough-on-border-security posture, fit well with the voters in his culturally conservative district. 

While Cuellar may have won his last two elections, there wasn’t much cause to celebrate. Cuellar’s slim margins of victory over Cisneros betray vulnerability. In his last two races, the support of House leaders, the local oil and gas industry, and the Koch network were barely enough to keep Cuellar afloat. As such, it’s right to question whether the political calculations of Jeffries and his cohort this go-around are out of date. 

Presumably, in its attempt to head off another primary challenge—including one from Cisneros, who hasn’t ruled out another run—party leaders are making a statement that they don’t think the left can win general elections in South Texas. Lira believes evidence indicates, however, that “progressive policies are wildly popular amongst working class people, Latinos, and younger voters.” Indeed, many Latino voters and South Texas’s young voters don’t share the same worldview as blue-dog Democrats such as Cuellar. They support access to safe abortions and stronger action on climate change. The gap that separates Democrats of Cisneros’s ilk from those of Cuellar’s has as much to do with age as with ideology. And if the party concedes nothing to the young, progressive left, Lira warns that it risks weakening its prospects in years to come. (South Texas has one of the highest unregistered youth voter populations in the state.)

A handful of progressive organizers and groups have grumbled about Jeffries’s attempt to clear the field. “It’s almost, like, common knowledge that in some cases the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] tips its thumb on the scale,” said Jen Ramos, the state Democratic executive committeewoman for State Senate District 21, which overlaps with the Twenty-Eighth. “So this is to be expected—and I’m not surprised—but it continuously disappoints that national entities feel that they can go into districts and tell us who the representation should be.” Tory Gavito, the president of Way to Win, a progressive donor network, told me she thinks the national party’s effort to avoid contested primaries is shortsighted. She said that the national party needs to stop “shooting itself in the foot” and instead get progressives excited to go to the polls. 

Indeed, party leaders have framed their support for Cuellar, despite some of his conservative stances, as a reflection of their commitment to creating a big-tent party. But that big tent doesn’t yet include the South Texas left. If that flank of the party fields a candidate who can win a district like Cuellar’s, that candidate, like earlier insurgents, will ultimately have to work with party leaders who’ve stubbornly tried to keep them out.

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