Anti-Abortion Democrat Henry Cuellar Appears to Prevail Despite FBI Cloud

The nine-term Laredo Congressman declared victory Tuesday night over progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros with a razor-thin margin.

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On an evening when Texas primary runoffs felt painfully insignificant—just hours after a gunman left at least 21 dead at an elementary school in Uvalde—they occurred nevertheless. In the night’s most high-profile Democratic race, nine-term Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar declared victory over progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros with a razor-thin margin of fewer than 200 votes.

“Tonight, the 28th Congressional District spoke and we witnessed our great Democratic system at work,” said Cuellar—the U.S. House’s last anti-abortion Democrat—in a statement late Tuesday night. “This primary was a hard-fought battle. … Finally, I would like to congratulate Jessica on a hard-fought campaign.” 

Meanwhile, Cisneros said in a tweet: “This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted. This fight isn’t over.”

Additional mail-in votes could still be tallied, and the race is tight enough that Cisneros could request a recount. Cuellar is familiar with recounts, having prevailed in a dubious one in 2004 that launched his congressional career. “I know what it is to do a recount in an election contest,” he said. “We have very good attorneys and if we need to, we will defend our election victory.”

The Cuellar-Cisneros clash had become a cash-soaked national cause célèbre when a Supreme Court opinion that would abolish Roe v. Wade leaked earlier this month, turning up the heat even higher on the anti-abortion Cuellar, whose home and campaign office were also raided by the FBI early this year for reasons still unclear. Neither incident was enough to break Democratic House leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, away from Cuellar.

This is the third time Cuellar seems to have barely escaped an ouster by Cisneros’ hand. In the 2020 Democratic primary, Cisneros came within 2,700 votes of unseating him, and in the March primary this year, Cisneros pulled in about 1,000 votes less than the incumbent. It’s possible Cisneros would have won the March primary outright had there not been another progressive challenger who garnered 5 percent. 

canny political operator who’s solidified a concrete base of support among Laredo’s political and business elites over two decades, Cuellar ran up the score in his home county while Cisneros routed him in Bexar County, home to San Antonio—a testament to a profoundly divided and geographically disparate GOP-drawn district.

Cisneros, an immigration attorney who turned 29 the day of the runoff, was endorsed by the likes of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ran on a platform including Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. She raised $4.5 million as of early May, benefitting from around $3 million in outside spending per Open Secrets, with major spending coming from super PACs financed by the Working Families Party and Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-choice women. 

Cuellar—who’s been praised by the National Rifle Association and was the only U.S. House Democrat to oppose the pro-union PRO Act—raised $3.1 million as of early May. His allies pumped in about $3 million in outside spending, with the lion’s share coming from the United Democracy Project, the super PAC of AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group that has spent massively against progressive primary challengers on issues unrelated to its main mission. 

The hotly contested race took a nasty turn by the end. In the final days before the election, there were reports of fake “newspapers” circulating in the district claiming that Cuellar had been cleared by the FBI and laundering personal smears against Cisneros. It’s unclear who was behind the material. 

In November, Cuellar looks set to face Cassy Garcia, the Republican runoff winner and an ex-staffer for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz. Although the 28th is blue—Biden would have carried it by seven points in 2020—Republicans will be eager to push for an upset as they seek to capitalize on recent gains made in South Texas. The Cook Political Report currently ranks the district a toss-up.