Neither Jessica Cisneros nor Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) secured enough votes to win the Democratic U.S. House primary for Texas’ 28th congressional district on Tuesday night. The first marquee Democratic primary of the 2022 midterms now heads to a run off.
The Associated Press called the race early Wednesday morning, with Cuellar leading by a narrow margin of only a few hundred votes. In Texas, candidates needs to earn at least 50 percent of the vote to win a primary. Since neither Cisneros or Cueller did so, they’ll square off in a one-on-one runoff election in May.
“We are so much closer to defeating Henry Cuellar,” Cisneros said at a press conference on Wednesday morning. She hailed the results as proof that “more that half the voters believe it’s time for new leadership.” (Cuellar had not made any statements about the race as of Wednesday morning.)
Progressives have longed to oust Cuellar, a conservative Democrat with positions and credentials more commonly found among Republicans. He has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, often sides with the oil and gas industry, and is one of the last anti-abortion holdouts among federally elected Democrats. A member of the business-friendly Blue Dog Coalition, Cuellar has funded his reelection campaigns with heavy assistance from corporate donors. He had been among a small group of Democratic lawmakers who, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), did not support the Build Back Better Act, the party’s sweeping economic agenda that failed after months of talks last December. “We know it’s not just Manchin,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told a crowd when she campaigned for Cisneros in San Antonio last month. “You know who’s helping him? Henry Cuellar.”
Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney, first challenged Cuellar in 2020 and lost to him by roughly 3,000 votes. Her first run, like this one, had the backing of the Justice Democrats, a left-wing political organization that seeks to purge corporate-aligned centrists like Cuellar from the party. She ran on a platform that included the darlings of the left, like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and comprehensive immigration reform. But as she waged her shoe leather campaign this cycle, she sometimes eschewed progressive slogans in favor of a more grounded message tailored to her district, a heavily working-class Latino community that stretches from San Antonio south to the U.S.-Mexico border. “It depends, obviously, on who you’re talking to,” Cisneros said of her messaging in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I don’t support progressive policy because it’s progressive. I actually support it because I think it’s the best way that we can speak to the challenges that people face in this district.” Primary results suggest her message most resonated with primary voters in San Antonio and its surrounding counties, while Cuellar bested her in rural counties near the border.
Cuellar looked poised to fend off Cisneros for the second time until January, when the FBI raided his home and campaign headquarters. Authorities have not disclosed many details about the investigation, but it relates to a federal grand jury probe centered on organizations involved with Azerbaijan — including three Texas-based companies tied to Cuellar’s wife. Cuellar insists he’s done nothing wrong, but Cisneros and her progressive allies pounced on the development as evidence of Cuellar’s alleged corruption. In the final weeks of the campaign, Justice Democrats took to the airwaves with a television advertisement hammering Cuellar for his corporate ties and ongoing federal investigation. The message had some impact. “People tell me they’ve seen the news and they aren’t going to vote for Cuellar anymore,” Carlos Soto, who knocked doors for Cisneros across San Antonio, told Rolling Stone in February.
The race has high stakes for the Democratic Party’s left flank, a wing that’s suffered a string of legislative and electoral defeats over the last few months. Progressive all-stars, like Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), descended upon Texas in February to shore up support for Cisneros and Greg Casar, a 32-year-old former Austin city council member running for an open U.S. House seat in a deep-blue district between San Antonio and the capital. Progressives looked to claim the victories as a validation of their platform and a rejection of conservative, scandal-ridden centrists.
Their detractors aren’t so sure, repudiating the left for pursuing a platform they believe hurts the party’s prospects beyond the blue districts where the competitive Democratic primaries unfold. “It’s crystal clear that the ideas and slogans of the far left are not the way to defend or grow Democratic majorities,” Matt Bennett, Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at Third Way, a centrist think tank, said in an email. “A handful of wins in a low-turnout congressional primary doesn’t change that basic fact.”
Most successful progressive primary challengers in recent years have ousted incumbents in districts that vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, like the Austin-area district Casar would represent. Cisneros’ district, however, tilts just slightly in Democrats’ favor and is a GOP target in 2022. If she does win, she’ll be one of the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, a record set by then-29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.
She’d also — along with Casar, if he wins — become a key member in the growing group of progressive House Democrats. “I’m sure they’ll be welcomed with open arms,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told Rolling Stone on Tuesday afternoon.