Jessica Cisneros: How the Texas election became make or break for progressives

Guns, abortion, AOC, older Latino voters and an FBI all play a role in the Democratic primary in this border district, writes Eric Garcia

Wednesday 02 March 2022 01:16 GMT
(Getty Images)

Texas’s primary on Tuesday night will have national implications when Rep Henry Cuellar faces off against immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros in a rematch that could serve as a bellwether for both Latino voters and the direction of the Democratic Party.

Mr Cuellar has held office in the district since 2005 and is one of the last pro-gun rights and anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. Last year, he was the sole Democrat to vote against legislation in the House that would have codified abortion protections.

Similarly, Mr Cuellar is one of the few Democrats left who has received campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association and in 2018, the NRA endorsed him. Nevertheless, he has proved to be electorally dominant and is sometimes referred to as the “King of Laredo,” where he is based in Texas.

All of this made him a target for Democrats in 2020, when Ms Cisneros challenged him. At the time, Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Ms Cisneros but she came up short by less than 2,700 votes. When she came up short, Mr Cuellar successfully lobbied against Ms Ocasio-Cortez joining the powerful Energy & Commerce Committee.

But after redistricting, the 28th district not only includes communities like Laredo but also urban centres like San Antonio, which Ms Cisneros hopes will make the difference for her. Last month, Ms Ocasio-Cortez campaigned with Ms Cisneros last month in San Antonio.

“We hope that they make it through here and that South Texas and a place like Laredo can show – rather from Laredo to San Antonio – that they can show that this could be really a source of profound, hopeful change that they’re setting to come,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez told The Independent.

Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project, said that he is concerned about having national figures like Ms Ocasio-Cortez campaigning in Texas.

“I think that may have limited her reach a bit,” he said. Mr Angle said that oftentimes, national groups will parachute into Texas more to focus on their own national priorities rather than focusing on putting Texas in the Democratic column.

“For them it’s a field trip. For us, it’s the future of Texas,” he said.

For his part, Mr Cuellar has campaigned on the fact Ms Cisneros has said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which employs many Latinos in the district, could be split in half.

“I think there’s an anxiety across America where folks are looking for new blood in lots of cases. But that also means that it’s tough because you don’t have name ID or been as entrenched,” Chuck Rocha, who worked on Sen Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, said about Ms Cisneros’s chances.

Mr Rocha noted that often the voters who turn out for primaries are older Latino “Yellow Dog” moderate Democrats.

“Old Mexicans like Henry Cuellar,” he told The Independent.

At the same time, Mr Cuellar received a surprise when FBI agents raided his home in relation to an investigation into the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Mr Rocha said that and the fact that there will be less turnout since it is not a presidential year might help Ms Cisneros.

“It has a bigger impact than what it had two years ago because turnout is going to be half of what it was in 2020,” he said.

At the same time, there is concern that about the fact that Democrats could lose the district if a Democrat who is not as culturally conservative as Mr Cuellar were the nominee.

“I would say about 90 per cent of Democrats are very conservative but they vote Democrat because of their parents,” said Ross Barrera, who was chairman of the Starr County Republican Party. While President Joe Biden got within single digits of Donald Trump in 2020, plenty of heavily Latino counties moved rightward.

Starr County, which is in the 28th district, voted for Mr Biden but moved 56 percentage points to the right in 2020. Similarly, Hidalgo County moved 25 points to the right even as it stayed Democratic and Webb County, where Laredo is located, moved 30 points to the right. Meanwhile, Zapata County moved 39 points to the right and voted for Mr Trump.

Republicans are counting on that shift in South Texas being permanent, according to Republican National Committee spokesperson Danielle Alvarez’s statement to The Independent.

“Democrats and Biden’s out-of-touch policies on the border, crime, COVID-19, and education have left the Hispanic community behind,” she said in a statement. ‘Our community thrives under Republican leadership, which is why so many Hispanics are ditching the Democrats and voting for Republicans.”

To boot, the RNC noted how it also set up a community centre in Laredo, the heart of the district, as well as one in San Antonio.

Mr Barrera, who is an elections judge and ran a failed campaign for mayor of Rio Grande City, said that Tuesday was the first primary in almost a century that multiple people are running as Republicans in the county.

“That’s throwing a monkey wrench in the local election,” he said. “We never had a group of people. I go back to 1906.”

But Mr Angle blew off concerns about the district moving rightward, noting how Democrats just didn’t do outreach in 2020.

“There’s nothing new about Republicans doing well from time to time. George W Bush did well on the border. Greg Abbott did well on the border,” he said. “Biden didn’t have a campaign at all in Texas. It was really a one-sided conversation.”

Similarly, he said that both candidates would be better-served keeping the race local.

“My strong view is that neither party in Texas has helped when you have national party leaders come in. They like their leaders to pay close attention to Texas. They’re better off running their own campaign, talking about Texas.”

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