Texas Primary Is Democrats' First Big Test On Abortion Rights After Supreme Court Leak

·8 min read
The leaked Supreme Court draft on abortion rights has shaped the runoff between progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). (Photo: Associated Press)
The leaked Supreme Court draft on abortion rights has shaped the runoff between progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). (Photo: Associated Press)

The leaked Supreme Court draft on abortion rights has shaped the runoff between progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). (Photo: Associated Press)

In two consecutive primary runs against Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros has homed in on Cuellar’s opposition to abortion rights as a key point of contrast.

The difference between the two candidates’ positions on abortion rights took on new weight after a draft of a Supreme Court decision overturning the Roe v. Wade decision leaked at the beginning of the month.

Cuellar is the last abortion rights opponent in the House Democratic Caucus. And as Cuellar and Cisneros compete in a runoff election on Tuesday, some pro-choice advocates hope a win for her in the primary will show the importance of backing a choice at a time when abortion rights are in danger. 

“With abortion rights on the line, it’s essential we elect Democratic pro-choice women like Cisneros because she not only understands that abortion is a fundamental right, but also knows that it’s central to economic and social justice for people in Texas,” said Danni Wang, a spokesperson for EMILY’s List, a group that backs pro-choice Democratic women and is supporting Cisneros.

Cuellar, for his part, maintains that his opposition to abortion rights is at once not as radical in nature as that of a hardline Republican, and a better fit for the socially conservative voters of Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which is predominantly Latino and working class.

“Cisneros is probably closer to the modal or median Democrat on abortion rights,” said Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin. “Is that true in this district? That’s what this is a test of.”

Cuellar condemned the leaked Supreme Court draft, noting that it was “not incremental in nature” and arguing that it would “further divide the country during these already divisive times.” He also affirmed that he supports permitting abortions during the exceptional cases of rape, incest and a “danger” to the life of the mother.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns for Jessica Cisneros in San Antonio on May 20. The primary has become a Democratic Party proxy battle. (Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns for Jessica Cisneros in San Antonio on May 20. The primary has become a Democratic Party proxy battle. (Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns for Jessica Cisneros in San Antonio on May 20. The primary has become a Democratic Party proxy battle. (Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images)

But to Cisneros and her pro-choice allies, the votes Cuellar has cast in Congress have been more important than any comments. In September, he was the sole Democrat in the House to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which sought to codify the protections offered by the Roe decision should the Supreme Court strike them down. (Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined Republicans in blocking the bill from advancing in the Senate earlier this month.)

Before the leak of the Supreme Court draft, Cisneros had already made Cuellar’s vote the focus of TV and digital advertisements, including one that referenced the Texas law barring abortions after six weeks. But she had also begun hammering Cuellar for allowing the city of Laredo’s water infrastructure to deteriorate under his watch.

After the Supreme Court leak, however, Cisneros doubled down on abortion rights ― and escalated her rhetoric. She called upon House Democratic leaders to withdraw their support for Cuellar as a demonstration of their commitment to the rights guaranteed by the Roe decision.

“With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk,” she said.

Top Democrats did not heed her call. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) headlined a rally for Cuellar in San Antonio hours after Cisneros’ appeal.

And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has recorded a robocall on Cuellar’s behalf, noted that the House passed the bill codifying Roe in September in spite of Cuellar’s “no” vote. “He is not pro-choice, but we didn’t need him,” she said in mid-May.

What the Roe draft decision leak did is reinforce Cisneros’ campaign message that Cuellar was not a representative Democrat.Joshua Blank, University of Texas, Austin

Cuellar and the groups backing him are trying to shore up his vulnerability to attacks on the issue. During the 2020 primary, which Cuellar ultimately won by under four percentage points, he aired a TV ad attacking Cisneros for supporting letting minors get abortions without parental consent.

Cuellar has not aired anything similar this time around. And Mainstream Democrats, a centrist super PAC that has spent nearly $800,000 supporting Cuellar, has funded an ad painting Cuellar as a defender of abortion rights.

“With women’s rights under attack from extremists, Democrat Henry Cuellar has made it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion,” the narrator says in the ad.

Other Cuellar supporters have nonetheless engaged in dirty tactics to paint Cisneros as out of step with the largely Catholic district’s values. A billboard in Laredo and a mock newspaper entitled, “The South Texas Reporter,” have spread false claims that Cisneros conducted an extramarital affair with a former teacher that broke up the teacher’s marriage. (In fact, Cisneros’ relationship with her former educator, which reflects on his judgment rather than hers, took place before his marriage.)

Cuellar’s campaign has denied any connection to the advertisements, but a company run by a local real-estate mogul and Cuellar donor is behind the billboard.

“These sort of attacks have no place in South Texas,” the Cuellar campaign told HuffPost on Sunday.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) argues that the Democratic Party must hold room for social conservatives like him to stay competitive in South Texas. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) argues that the Democratic Party must hold room for social conservatives like him to stay competitive in South Texas. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) argues that the Democratic Party must hold room for social conservatives like him to stay competitive in South Texas. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Texas’ 28th, which stretches from San Antonio to Laredo and points southeast along the U.S.-Mexico border, skews more centrist than other historically Democratic districts. As in other heavily Latino seats in South Texas, then-President Donald Trump made significant inroads in the district in 2016. While Hillary Clinton bested Trump in the district by nearly 20 percentage points, President Joe Biden carried the seat by just four points in 2020.

Fears that Cuellar’s defeat would make it easier for Republicans to flip the seat have undoubtedly played a role in national Democrats’ decision to stand by him so steadfastly. The winner of Tuesday’s runoff is likely to face Cassy Garcia, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in the general election.

“It’s a much harder race for Democrats if she’s the nominee instead of Henry Cuellar,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D), one of hundreds of local elected officials supporting Cuellar.

The runoff in Texas’ 28th has also attracted massive outside spending for both candidates that is often totally unrelated to the issue of abortion rights. EMILY’s List’s super PAC, Women Vote!, the Working Families Party, and Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that recruited Cisneros, have jointly spent more than $1.5 million in independent spending backing Cisneros in the runoff. And among other left-leaning lawmakers, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has helped raise money for Cisneros’ campaign and rallied for her in the district.

Cuellar has the support of deep-pocketed super PACs that are in some cases more interested in arresting the left’s rise within the Democratic Party than they are in helping Democrats hold the seat. In addition to Mainstream Democrats, which is funded in significant part by billionaire LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s super PAC has spent over $1.8 million to re-elect Cuellar.

It’s a much harder race for Democrats if she’s the nominee instead of Henry Cuellar.Texas state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D)

“We are engaged in races where there is a distinct difference between candidates on supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship — which is in the progressive tradition,” AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittman told HuffPost earlier this month.

A win for Cuellar would improve AIPAC’s record in the first cycle in which it has employed a super PAC. Don Davis and Valerie Foushee, two candidates AIPAC endorsed in North Carolina, won their Democratic House primaries last Tuesday, while Steve Irwin, another AIPAC endorsee, fell short of progressive Summer Lee in a Pennsylvania primary.

Given the confluence of different factors at play in Texas’ 28th, it is impossible to say just how much of an impact abortion rights will have.

In a low-turnout runoff in a Democratic primary though, the Supreme Court leak almost certainly benefited Cisneros by raising the stakes of the two candidates’ differences on the issue.

“What the Roe draft decision leak did is reinforce Cisneros’ campaign message that Cuellar was not a representative Democrat,” Blank said.

The Supreme Court leak is the second major break Cisneros has received in the run-up to an election against Cuellar in Texas’ 28th Congressional District.

Just over a month before Cuellar and Cisneros squared off on March 1, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home in Laredo as part of a federal probe reportedly associated with Azerbaijan’s influence peddling in Congress. The raid prompted a surge in donations for Cisneros, who finished just two percentage points behind Cuellar after votes were counted. The presence of a third candidate on the ballot, Tannya Benavides, prevented either Cuellar or Cisneros from obtaining an outright majority, prompting Tuesday’s runoff.

When Benavides, an educator, endorsed Cisneros on May 10, she cited Cisneros’ support for abortion rights. “It’s time for pro-choice representation in South Texas and I know Jessica will be that champion,” she said in a statement.

But Raymond, the Cuellar ally, argues that the Supreme Court leak is unlikely to tip the balance one way or another.

“If someone was going to vote for her on that issue, they were going to vote for her anyway,” he told HuffPost.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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