Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar fends off primary challenge from his left

Challenger Jessica Cisneros had once worked as Cuellar's intern

Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar has said liberal challengers do not understand his district.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar has said liberal challengers do not understand his district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 4, 2020 at 10:42am

Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar survived a primary challenge from his left, defeating 26-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, who had once interned for him. 

Cuellar, who was first elected in 2004, is regarded as one of the more conservative Democrats in the House and one of the last remaining caucus members opposed to abortion rights. Cisneros was endorsed by a slew of high-profile Democrats and liberal groups, including EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cuellar was leading Cisneros, 52 percent to 48 percent, when The Associated Press called the race on Wednesday morning. 

Cuellar will be strongly favored to win a ninth term in November given that Hillary Clinton carried his 28th District, which borders Mexico and stretches into the San Antonio suburbs, by 20 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

The progressive group Justice Democrats made Cuellar its first 2020 target and placed ads in local newspapers looking for a candidate. The group had backed New York Democrat Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez in her upset 2018 victory over House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley. Cisneros’ high school typing teacher saw the ad and encouraged her to run for Congress. 

After Cisneros decided to challenge Cuellar, whom she interned for in the spring of 2014, she steadily earned endorsements from lawmakers including Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. EMILY’s List spent more than $1.2 million against Cuellar.

Cuellar, meanwhile, argued that he reflected his heavily Hispanic district, noting that his constituents were more socially conservative. Cuellar had the support of Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, but also from groups that have typically backed Republicans, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity Action.

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