Jessica Cisneros is not your typical South Texas politician. In a region where Democrats range from reticent to proudly pro-life on the question of abortion, the immigration attorney and second-time congressional candidate is unabashedly pro-choice. Where organized labor is weak and politics often captured by parochial business barons, she’s a union ally. Where elected Dems are Biden-style moderates or borderline Republicans, Cisneros has championed Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. Her adversaries think she’s unqualified and out-of-touch.
She thinks her time has come.
“At the very beginning, a lot of folks were very skeptical about what we were doing and the fact that I was a 26-year-old, first-time candidate [opposing] an establishment Democrat who has been in office longer than I’ve been alive,” Cisneros said. “I am just incredibly proud and so ready to finish what we started.”
In the 2020 Democratic primary, Cisneros came within 2,700 votes of unseating the powerful and long-serving Congressman Henry Cuellar. Now, Cisneros is challenging Cuellar again for Texas’s newly redrawn 28th Congressional district—a tall and jagged district, vaguely resembling a saxophone, that snags a chunk of San Antonio, reaches down into the western Rio Grande Valley, then runs upriver to its heart and Cisneros’s hometown: Laredo. Republican-led redistricting changed the 28th only slightly, increasing San Antonio’s influence while shearing off a chunk of the McAllen metro area. It remains a blue district—three-quarters Hispanic—that Biden would have carried by seven points.
Cuellar is the mold Cisneros wants to break. A nine-term congressman and a state House representative before that, Cuellar is anti-choice, anti-union, and has worked with Republicans on immigration proposals to limit access to asylum. In September, Cuellar was the only Democrat to oppose a U.S. House bill that would nullify Texas’s Senate Bill 8, the state’s near-total abortion ban. Earlier this year, he was also the only Democrat to oppose the PRO Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize. Per FiveThirtyEight, he voted with former President Donald Trump more often than all but a few of his Democratic colleagues.
Cuellar’s campaign warchest is regularly filled by the fossil fuel and private prison lobbies, along with other corporate PACs. As of late September, the congressman had $2.2 million on hand, with donations this year coming from Chevron, SpaceX, and Koch Industries. Cisneros, meanwhile, had raised about $450K with support from a number of progressive PACs. Another progressive challenger, Tannya Benavides, had raised $22K.
“We have a representative right now who isn’t being held accountable to the interests of folks here locally and a lot of it has to do with the fact that Henry Cuellar is being influenced by his corporate PAC donors,” Cisneros said. She pointed to Cuellar’s role in decoupling Congress’ $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed earlier this month, from Democrats’ larger social spending bill, a move that angered some progressives.
Despite periodically antagonizing national Democrats, Cuellar has rarely faced primary opposition. In 2020, Cisneros became his first serious challenger since 2006. Throughout his career, Cuellar has solidified support from business and political elites in his district. As the only Texas Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he regularly secures money for local projects and never misses an opportunity to take credit for doing so.
“Cuellar is a very shrewd politician,” said Rick Treviño, a former San Antonio congressional candidate who helped launch Cisneros’s 2020 campaign. “If you look at his style, he’s always got a big check, he’s cutting a ribbon.”
For Cuellar’s defenders, to elect Cisneros would be to kill the Golden Goose. “Jessica Cisneros will never see the inside of the Appropriations Committee room; just like every other member of ‘the squad,’ she will be sidelined,” said Colin Strother, the congressman’s former campaign hand and media bulldog. “All this money that comes home to Texas, all these roads and bridges and hospitals and courthouses and parks, all that goes away when we lose Henry Cuellar.”
Strother believes last year’s tight primary will prove an aberration. He argues many of Cisneros’s voters turned out primarily to support presidential candidate Bernie Sanders—coattails that won’t exist this time. He also says the Cuellar campaign underspent in the San Antonio area, where Cisneros dominated—a mistake he doesn’t think will be repeated. “The only thing she had going for her was Bernie,” Strother said. This time around, he predicts, Cuellar will win “by a country mile.”
Texas progressives, naturally, beg to differ. “I think it’s going to be a battle in the single digits again,” said Danny Diaz, organizing director at LUPE Votes and a senior adviser on Cisneros’s first campaign.
Diaz predicts the race could hinge on Starr County, a mostly rural chunk of the Rio Grande Valley with about 65,000 residents. Starr displayed a mix of trends last year: Sanders won the county in the Democratic primary along with most of the Texas border, but Starr chose Cuellar over Cisneros by a wide margin. Then, in November, the county was part of a significant region-wide shift toward Trump, yet still comfortably re-elected Dems down-ballot.
To win over residents of Starr County—a poor area where many work in law enforcement or the oil and gas industry—Diaz recommends homing in on issues such as universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage, and bringing in renewable energy jobs (rather than supporting the “Green New Deal” per se). He also suggests getting on the ground early. As of mid-November, Cisneros said her team had started phone-banking, but the campaign was still working out COVID-19 protocols before starting door-knocking. Some political observers blame Texas Democrats’ failure to campaign in-person in 2020 for the party’s disappointing November results.
Sylvia Bruni, the Democratic Party chair in Webb County, which also saw a swing toward Trump last November, hopes a competitive primary will fuel turnout among Democrats over the course of next year.
“What the Trumpers were doing was knocking on doors and telling folks, ‘If you don’t vote for Trump, you’re going to be homeless because Biden is going to shut down the oil wells.’ They pushed the economy, and we, well—we didn’t push,” Bruni said.
Cisneros’s primary challenge may also serve as a litmus test for Texas reproductive politics. With SB 8, the state’s abortion ban, still in effect and the Supreme Court set to hear another case next month that may further jeapordize abortion access, the issue should remain front and center in coming months. Along the heavily Catholic South Texas border, anti-choice Democrats have long won elections at the state and federal levels. In the 2020 primary, Cuellar ran ads attacking Cisneros for her pro-choice views, but Cisneros hasn’t backed down. In her launch video this year, she said she’s fighting “for reproductive healthcare, porque nuestras mamás, nuestras hijas, nuestras hermanas, our friends and family deserve freedom, dignity, and respect.”
This election cycle, a number of anti-choice Democrats along the border are facing primary challenges, retiring, or switching parties as the GOP works to make inroads in the area. With freshly gerrymandered political maps, political identities reworked by the Trump era, and a Biden administration dipping in popularity, the cycle feels rich with questions for South Texas Democrats. What might stave off the Republicans? Is now the time for young progressives to take the reins, or to double down on the status quo? Cisneros or Cuellar? A ver.