Texas primary battle: Can Rep. Cuellar survive? (Update: Runoff)

By the time this post goes up, polls will be closed in the Democratic primary in Texas and early results should be in. Eight-term congressman Henry Cuellar is in the fight of his life against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar is probably the most conservative Democrat in the country. He’s pro-life, supports gun rights and is opposed to most of what his party wants to do on immigration. Meanwhile, Cisneros has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC.


This year’s primary is a rerun of the contest two years ago when Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros by 2,746 votes. But things could be different this year in no small part because Cuellar’s home was recently raided by the FBI. Even though the exact nature of the investigation hasn’t been spelled out reports suggest it involves his connection to Azerbaijan:

ABC News reported that the raid was connected to a “wide-ranging federal probe” related to American businessmen and the oil-rich former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, which is known for its “caviar diplomacy” strategy to woo Western politicians. It’s unknown whether Cuellar himself, who said after the raid that the probe would find “no wrongdoing” on his part, is a direct target of the investigation.

Under the circumstances, Cuellar’s downfall might seem like a done deal but Politico published a story today saying there’s still a lot of support for the congressman, especially in the rural Hispanic county he won overwhelmingly in 2020.

Over four days in Rio Grande City I detected no significant erosion of support for Cuellar. In the era of Trump, all races, no matter how local, have become nationalized to some extent. Starr County, though, reveals a kind of practical-mindedness about politics that appears almost immune to the populist sloganeering by the extreme wings of both parties. Indeed, Cuellar’s self-celebrated bipartisanship and his ability, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, to deliver federal dollars to a place that desperately needs the assistance is just as important, perhaps even more so, as where he lines up ideologically.

“We’re not interested in the talk. Show us what you’ve done. And until we know otherwise, I mean, the guy is innocent until proven guilty,” says Jessica Vera-Rios, a clinical psychologist in Rio Grande City whose family has known Cuellar for years. She’s running for Starr County Democratic Party chair and describes herself as “a true Democrat.”…

According to Joel Villarreal, Rio Grande City’s Democratic mayor, most people who live there have a centrist political ideology. “As far as actual viable candidates or people who’ve been in office, I can’t remember any extremes. At either end.” Cisneros is pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Mayor Villarreal brings it up without being prompted…

What’s obvious is that the overwhelming draw to voting for Cuellar, is his seat on the Appropriations Committee.

“He’s our five-star quarterback, our Tom Brady,” says Andy Hernandez, a city commissioner in neighboring La Grulla.


So we’ll see if Cuellar’s record of bringing home the bacon is enough to overcome word of the FBI raid or if, on the other hand, campaign stops by AOC and Elizabeth Warren were enough to put Cisneros over the top this time around. Either way, moderates and progressives will be watching the results closely as a sign of how to approach a challenging 2020 election cycle.

Update: Here’s the update from Decision Desk on this race late last night.

But it looks like Cuellar wasn’t able to avoid the runoff:

Neither Jessica Cisneros nor Cuellar, a critic of the Biden White House on immigration who is also pro-gun and anti-abortion, got more than the 50 percent required to avoid the May 24 showdown in the Lone Star State’s 28th Congressional District, which stretches from San Antonio’s eastern suburbs to the Mexican border.

With 99 percent percent of the ballots tabulated, Cuellar has 48.5 percent of the vote to Cisneros’ 46.8 percent, according to the Associated Press.

Obviously a lot will depend on what happens with that FBI investigation between now and then.

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