WASHINGTON — Immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros forced U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar into a runoff as the 28-year-old challenger’s second swing at the longtime Laredo incumbent kept progressive hopes of a major South Texas political upset alive for at least a couple more months.

“I’m really glad that over half of the voters agree that it’s time for new leadership,” Cisneros said on Wednesday, striking an optimistic tone after a late election night ended with no clear winner. “On May 24, when I turn 29 years old, I expect to be the Democratic nominee for this district.”

Cisneros drew just under 47 percent of the vote to Cuellar’s 48.5 percent. Tannya Benavides, a former educator and community organizer who also ran as a progressive, brought in about 5 percent.

Cisneros chalked it up as a victory and said she doesn’t plan to retool a strategy she believes is working heading into the runoff.

“We are surging right now, in terms of momentum, and Henry Cuellar right now is on the decline,” she said. “We knew from the very beginning that this was going to be a very tough election, because we’re going up against a 17-year entrenched incumbent who started out with millions of dollars in his campaign war chest, funded by a lot of special corporate interests, and we had a campaign fueled entirely by people — people that believe South Texas deserves investments in health care, in infrastructure, in our jobs, in our education, in our environment.”

Cuellar was optimistic, too.

“After winning the most votes and showing the largest amount of support, we will now move to a runoff election on May 24th and we are confident we will win,” he said in a statement.

For now, at least, the Laredo Democrat has survived a serious challenge from a well-funded opponent — even while under a federal investigation that Cisneros and her allies kept front-and-center in the final stretch of the race. The FBI searched Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters in January. He has said the investigation will show no wrongdoing on his part.

And while Cisneros far outperformed Cuellar in portions of the district around San Antonio, the longtime Laredo Democrat held strong in counties along the border that have long been his base of support. That was especially true in Zapata County, where nearly 44 percent of voters cast ballots — a massive showing in a primary season marked by low turnout. Cuellar won more than 70 percent of the vote there.

“The key to Cuellar living to fight another day: pro-Trump Dem primary voters along the border who responded to his anti-progressive messaging,” Dave Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report, tweeted.

Cuellar spent much of the campaign touting millions in federal funding for local projects he says he’s brought to the district and endorsements from 171 current and former elected officials from the area. He has stuck to conservative talking points, as well, casting Cisneros as too far to the left for the district.

LAREDO, TEXAS - MARCH 01: Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros (TX-28) concludes a speech alongside her family during a watch party on March 01, 2022 in Laredo, Texas. Late results hint that Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) could face a primary runoff with neither getting more than the 50 percent necessary for an outright win. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

LAREDO, TEXAS – MARCH 01: Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros (TX-28) concludes a speech alongside her family during a watch party on March 01, 2022 in Laredo, Texas. Late results hint that Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) could face a primary runoff with neither getting more than the 50 percent necessary for an outright win. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Brandon Bell, Staff / Getty Images

“Don’t believe Jessica Cisneros’ lies — attacking Henry Cuellar to distract from her agenda that will hurt South Texas, because she knows her agenda won’t fly here,” goes one Cuellar ad that says Cisneros is “backed by the defund the police movement” and that she would cut border security.

Cisneros got help from Bexar voters

Cisneros, meanwhile, drew more than 70 percent of the vote in Bexar County, where her campaign has said a strong showing would be key to her success. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two stars of the political left, both made trips to San Antonio to rally support for Cisneros in the final stretch of the race. She had nearly 75 percent of the vote in Guadalupe County, northeast of San Antonio, and more than 55 percent in Atascosa to the south.

Benavides, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, has said she would rally behind Cisneros in a runoff. Asked if she would work with Benavides, Cisneros said she would accept the support of “any person that’s ready to fight for new leadership in South Texas.”

“The question is, can she pull this of with what almost 2½ before the runoff?” said Jon Taylor, who chairs the political science department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “We know as much as anything else, in politics, this is a lifetime.”

A Cisneros victory would be a major political upset. Cuellar is one of the most senior members of the Texas congressional delegation and one of the highest ranking Democrats in the House with the support of his party’s leadership. He has a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and serves as a chief deputy whip.

The rematch is one of the most closely watched races in the nation and is seen as a proxy battle for larger ideological debates in the Democratic Party. Cisneros campaigned on progressive touchstones, including Medicare for all, while Cuellar has long been one of his party’s most conservative members, occasionally breaking ranks and voting with Republicans.

Taylor said Cisneros will need to convince moderate and conservative Democrats that she’s not “some kind of firebrand,” while making the case the Cuellar is “damaged goods” with the FBI investigation.

He said Cuellar has done a good job so far appealing to those voters by focusing on his record and warning Cisneros would be bad for the district.

And both sides are likely to continue bringing in big campaign hauls and spending heavily over the next several weeks, Taylor said.

“It’s going to get scorched-earth,” he predicted.

Republicans have also targeted the district as one of three in South Texas they believe they can flip in November after making surprising gains in the region in 2020. Taylor predicted the party will spend heavily in the district, especially if Cuellar is knocked out of the race.

“If Cisneros wins, you’re now talking about a situation where Republicans will ratchet it up big time, seeing this as a potential gain for them trying to gain control of the U.S. House,” he said.

But the Republicans, too, are headed for a May runoff between Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sandra Whitten, a grassroots activist from Laredo who ran unsuccessfully against Cuellar in 2020. Garcia ended Tuesday night with 29 percent of the vote to Whitten’s 15 percent.

A win for Garcia would set up a full slate of Latina candidates for Republicans in the South Texas districts the party aims to flip.

With the support of former President Donald Trump, Monica De La Cruz sailed through a crowded Republican primary in a district left open after U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez decided to run in neighboring district. De La Cruz nearly unseated Gonzalez in 2020 and the district was redrawn to lean more to the right.

Mayra Flores won a four-way race for the Republican nomination in the district Gonzalez is now running in, left open by retiring U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela.

[email protected]

Editor’s Note: Tannya Benavides’ last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *