Progressives Look to Texas to Continue Their 2022 Hot Streak

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Texas on Tuesday will wrap up its 2022 primary runoff elections—and in doing so, progressives will finally see the outcome of a race that’s had the left-most wing of the party on its toes for months.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) and two-time progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros both failed to hit 50 percent of the vote in their initial matchup in Texas’ March 1 primary, forcing them into a one-on-one runoff for the nomination this week.

If Cisneros wins, it could be more fuel for progressives this cycle, adding to major wins in primaries thus far including John Fetterman in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, Greg Casar in Texas’ 35th Congressional District and Summer Lee in Pennsylvania’s 12th. The verdict is still out on whether progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner will join their ranks as the votes are still being counted in her race against incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR).

But if Cisneros loses, it could blunt progressives’ momentum just as the primaries head into full swing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a San Antonio rally with Cisneros on Friday framed the race as a battle against the billionaire class. “And if we beat them badly enough, maybe they will learn that they can take their money, put it in their pockets, and let the people decide who they want,” Sanders said.

Sanders isn’t Cisneros’ only ally who’s been working the ground game in the months since the initial primary. Progressive organizations, including Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement, and more have continued to prop up her candidacy through the runoff cycle. She’s also received a number of new endorsements, including from Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA).

And Cisneros, an immigration attorney by trade, has seen a boost in fundraising following news of the Supreme Court’s draft decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Last year, Cuellar was the lone Democrat in the House to vote against codifying Roe v. Wade into law—and maintains publicly that he is anti-abortion.

Cisneros has emphasized that difference between her and Cuellar throughout the entirety of the campaign, but the actual threat of losing Roe v. Wade could change its impact.

Rep. Henry Cuellar and Progressive Jessica Cisneros Head to Runoff in Texas Slugfest

Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project, told The Daily Beast Cuellar has been a consistent anti-abortion Democrat throughout the entirely of his political career—and that voters in the district, so far, haven’t seemed bothered by that stance. But Cuellar voters have always previously operated under the premise of Roe v. Wade being upheld in the nation’s highest court.

The recent leak, Blank said, could prompt some voters to re-evaluate. “Cisneros has certainly benefited from timing in this contest,” Blank added.

Following news of the draft decision, Cuellar, a Catholic, did release a statement saying he supports exceptions for abortion in instances of rape, incest, and life of the mother. “My faith does not allow me to support extreme positions such as late term or partial birth abortions,” he added in the statement.

But the abortion issue adds another potential vulnerability to the congressman’s already complicated standing with voters this cycle following an FBI raid on his home in January.

The congressman still has not publicly discussed details of the FBI raid on his home, which appears to be related to business dealings in Azerbaijan, but the Department of Justice has said Cuellar is not a focus of the investigation, per his lawyer.

The passage of time since the raid does appear to have given Cuellar some room for recovery among his allies.

Leading up to the March 1 primary, Cuellar was somewhat cut off from the ranks of leadership that bolstered his candidacy in years past. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer skipped their annual trip to Laredo, Texas, to ride along in a parade with the congressman. His endorsers were noticeably quiet.

Texas Democrats Hit Long Lines and Tech Problems in 2022’s First Primary

And in the weeks leading up to Election Day, Cuellar was noticeably out of sight, while Cisneros continued to hop around the district, at times with high-profile politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in tow.

But in the 12 weeks between then and now, Cuellar’s been back on the town. He’s seen a new wave of endorsements, including from the Chamber of Commerce. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-DC), often referred to as the Democrats’ kingmaker, even came to the district to rally for Cuellar, though turnout appeared to be thin.

Even as the Democratic brass appears to be softening on the congressman, however, voters could still be another story.

In March, Cuellar received 48.6 percent of the vote, compared to Cisneros’ 46.7. The remaining 4.7 percent went to a third contender, Tannya Benavides, who has since endorsed Cisneros.

But Cisneros has some hurdles of her own to clear, too. Blank said one significant factor could be working against her: turnout.

Primary elections during midterm years are already low-turnout events. Runoffs are even worse, giving incumbent candidates with a long-term, reliable base of voters an advantage. In this instance, that’s Cuellar.

That leaves Cisneros trying to turnout her base a second time—and hoping that controversies that have plagued Cuellar this cycle are jarring enough to kick voters into gear.

“Someone like Cuellar who’s already been voted for in the district multiple times… it’s just a much easier ask than what Cisneros is trying to overcome,” Blank said.

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