Texas will hold the first primary elections of the season on March 1, providing an early look at how progressives and their policy platforms may fare in a particularly tough midterm cycle. Democrats are bracing for a possible bloodbath, with House Democrats retiring in droves as the party prepares to defend fragile majorities in both chambers. But the Democratic exodus—and the general backlash to President Biden’s first-year performance—could also open a window for a more progressive slate of candidates competing in safe blue districts.
Two progressive candidates in Texas, Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney, and Greg Casar, a former Austin City Council member, have garnered national support and attention, winning prominent endorsements from lawmakers like Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cisneros nearly defeated the “King of Laredo,” as Representative Henry Cuellar is known, as a first-time candidate in 2020, coming within four percentage points of the nine-term incumbent.
She’s taking on Cuellar, a longtime fixture in South Texas politics and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, once again in the state’s 28th Congressional District. He’s an anti-choice, anti-labor Blue Dog with deep ties to the oil and gas industry. His right-wing policy positions, as well as his relationships to Republican and corporate special interests, have also angered some powerful establishment groups along the way, including Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and the Texas AFL-CIO, all of whom have rallied behind Cisneros instead.
Cisneros is campaigning primarily on economic justice issues like health care, jobs, and the rising cost of living, but she has also hammered Cuellar’s campaign over corruption. A recent FBI raid on Cuellar’s Laredo home and campaign office has further complicated an already troubled reelection bid. The raid was part of a broader federal investigation related to Azerbaijan and several US businessmen, but it’s still unclear why the FBI is specifically investigating him and wife. Cuellar maintains that the investigation “will show that there was no wrongdoing on my part.”
But he refuses to debate Cisneros and has made few public appearances since the FBI raid. As HuffPost reported, three consultants to his campaign have departed, and party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are nowhere to be found. Though they didn’t pull their official support of Cuellar, Pelosi and House majority leader Steny Hoyer didn’t stump for him in the last stretch of the race like they did in 2020.
Besides the decision to lay low, Cuellar’s campaign strategy has remained consistent. His attacks on Cisneros largely mirror the GOP’s scare tactics around “open borders” and “defund the police,” and he’s been blanketing the district’s airwaves with ads.
The primary race in Texas’s 35th Congressional District, though it has received less national attention, is another possible pickup opportunity for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Casar, a democratic socialist and former labor organizer, is one of four Democrats vying to replace longtime Representative Lloyd Doggett, who is instead running in a newly created district nearby. State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, the other top candidate in the race, is also trying to run as a progressive, pointing to his record as a liberal member of the state legislature. Casar has picked up high-profile endorsements from Democratic Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Sheila Jackson Lee, as well as Justice Democrats, the progressive group best known for recruiting Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. He has significantly outraised his opponents, having raised more than $467,000 in campaign contributions, according to the most filings with the Federal Election Commission.
But Casar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, recently lost support from Austin’s DSA chapter over his stance on Israel-Palestine. A letter, which was obtained by Jewish Insider, revealed that Casar opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement and vowed to support American military assistance to Israel. A statement released by the chapter’s leadership committee said that Casar’s position is “not reconcilable with DSA’s stance in solidarity with Palestine.” Instead of backing away from his pledge, the Casar campaign requested that Austin DSA withdraw its endorsement.
“As socialists and internationalists, we recognize that Israel is an apartheid state that violates the human rights of Palestinians,” the statement continued. “We have a long history of working with Greg Casar on health care, paid sick time, police budgets, homelessness, housing justice, union rights, and more. We will continue to discuss this issue within our chapter and many individual members will continue to support the campaign, but we will no longer be working on this campaign as an organization.”
A new poll from Public Policy Polling found the former city councilor leading the pack, but falling short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election on May 24. The poll, which was paid for by the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, surveyed likely voters in the district and found Casar sitting at 42 percent and Rodriguez at 13 percent.
Texas’s 30th Congressional District, which covers much of Dallas and other parts of Dallas County, will also see a competitive Democratic primary for the seat being vacated by retiring Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson. Freshman state Representative Jasmine Crockett, who was recruited and endorsed by Johnson, Jessica Mason, a Navy veteran and public housing administrator endorsed by Nina Turner and DSA North Texas, and Jane Hope Hamilton, a former staffer for Biden’s Texas campaign, are all top candidates in the crowded field.