LAREDO —U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, boldly declared victory just before midnight in his nail-biter primary runoff race. But his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, refused to concede, as the race was separated by less than 200 votes with all counties reporting their votes.
“This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted,” she said in a tweet, shortly after Cuellar declared himself the winner.
Just before midnight in Texas, Cuellar led Cisneros by a mere 177 votes.
At the time he declared victory, no major news organization had called the race.
“Tonight, the 28th Congressional District spoke, and we witnessed our great Democratic system at work,” he said in a statement. “The results are in, all the votes have been tallied — I am honored to have once again been re-elected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress.”
With such a narrow margin, it is likely the race may not be decided for days. Mail-in votes from domestic voters can still be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday and are received by counties by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The race is also within the margin that Cisneros can request a recount.
Cuellar told reporters in an interview outside of his campaign headquarters that he’s undeterred by the close call.
“I know what it is to do a recount in an election contest,” he said, referring to a 2004 recount that ended with him becoming a congressman. “We have very good attorneys and if we need to, we will defend our election victory.”
The race was a dead heat on Tuesday night and the two Democrats took the lead at different points throughout the night as the district’s most rural counties delivered consequential vote totals that swung the race back and forth.
The race is a rematch from 2020, when Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros in the March primary of that year. Earlier in the campaign this year, he appeared to be on stronger footing than the previous cycle. That all disappeared in January, when the FBI raided his home and campaign office weeks before the primary election. He has denied wrongdoing, and his attorney has said that Cuellar is not the target of the investigation.
Cisneros effectively capitalized on this development in both fundraising and in a television advertising campaign. And in the March contest, Cuellar was narrowly forced into the runoff election.
Cuellar appeared even more endangered earlier this month, when Politico reported on a leaked draft indicating that the U.S. Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. As the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House and with a looming runoff with Cisneros, an energized pro-abortion movement turned its energy on the Laredo congressman.
But Cuellar also benefited from his deep connections to the community.
Whoever wins will ultimately face off against Republican Cassy Garcia, former U.S. Senate staffer, who won her own primary Tuesday night.
This once Democratic stronghold is now being labeled a “toss up” seat in the November general election, as Republicans turn their efforts toward South Texas domination. Both Cuellar and Cisneros have their weaknesses in a November race. Cuellar could again be damaged by FBI investigation, if not cleared by then, and Cisneros, some political analysts predict, is too progressive for the region.
Beyond differences in abortion, the pair are at odds on an array of issues that include border security, energy and environmental policy and the experiences they would bring to public service.
Cisneros and the many progressive groups that backed her repeatedly hammered Cuellar for taking campaign donations from the private prison industry, the oil and gas industry and health insurance companies.Cuellar also has broken with the party to side with Republicans who wish to extend Title 42, a Trump-era health policy that allows immigration officials to expel migrants quickly, even those seeking asylum, because of COVID-19 concerns.
Cuellar spent much of the campaign making the case that he is uniquely able to help the Laredo-based district as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. He and his local allies praised his efforts to bring back funding, particularly transportation funding that supports trade within the border community.
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