Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas’ 28th Congressional District was forced into a runoff Tuesday with his 2020 primary challenger Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney, ran as an avowed progressive with endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cisneros came within 2,746 votes of beating Cuellar in the 2020 primary despite being outspent by $700,000, and many observers speculated that a recent FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign office might create enough of a cloud over the 17-year incumbent to allow Cisneros to close the gap. This year, she is running just 807 votes behind with 99% of the votes counted.
The FBI has revealed nothing about the raid, but some reports have suggested that it is related to Cuellar’s ties to oil interests in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Cisneros has been trying to capitalize on the investigation saying, “for South Texans, the FBI investigation into Henry Cuellar is alarming and yet there were already serious concerns about the Congressman’s long history of corruption and close ties with his corporate donors over the voters of this district.”
The district starts in the outskirts of San Antonio, wends its way south to Laredo, and spreads out along the border with Mexico. It took an unexpected turn to the right in the 2020 election when Joe Biden won the district by just a few points, while Hillary Clinton won it by 20 points in 2020.
But that swing to the right might have been about jobs, and the fear of losing them. Republicans successfully capitalized on a statement made by Joe Biden near the end of the final presidential debate. “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
The district was redrawn in 2021. The newly-drawn district would have delivered a 7-point margin to Biden. Republicans will be trying to flip the seat in November, encouraged by the growing willingness of South Texas Latinos to vote Republican.
Some centrist Democrats worry that Cisneros is too liberal for the district and may create an opening for Republicans. They caution against seeing the primary as a bellwether for divisions within the party, and were attempting to spin the results even before the election. Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the moderate think tank Third Way, argued Monday in an email that progressives still have not proven they can make significant inroads in key congressional races. “A handful of wins in a low-turnout congressional primary doesn’t change that basic fact,” Bennett said.
Cuellar, a pro-life, conservative Democrat, sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which gives him the ability to direct dollars back home to his district. “He’s our five-star quarterback, our Tom Brady,” says Andy Hernandez, a city commissioner in neighboring La Grulla. “The bottom line for voters here,” Hernandez says, “is what a candidate can bring back to the community. … We’re one of the poorest communities in America, but we have a big brother in him.”
Whether Cuellar can withstand his challenges from his left and his right might come down to what is revealed in the FBI investigation, and when.