Today we’ll start with an article about the Texas 28 congressional race from WaPo.
Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer from Laredo, Tex., would rather focus on her campaign to unseat her former boss, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D), than her identity as a millennial backed by self-described liberals.
Cisneros argues that the 17-year incumbent — a first-generation Mexican American attorney like herself — is no longer the right fit for Texas’s 28th Congressional District, the deep-south Texas stretch from San Antonio to the border that came close to nominating her two years ago.
Cuellar dismisses Cisneros as a candidate with ties to “far-left” celebrities — a reference to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who recently campaigned for Cisneros in the district — and liberal groups that have backed her candidacy.
But the liberal label is not Cisneros’s pitch to voters.
“I’ve never branded myself in any of the terms Cuellar is using,” she told The Washington Post in an interview. “I never go up to a door and expect a voter to vote for me because I’m progressive. Like, we actually have conversations about the policies that I’m running on.”
With days to go before Tuesday’s primary, Cisneros stands as a serious challenge to Cuellar, one of the last congressional Democrats to oppose abortion rights and a frequent critic of President Biden’s immigration policies. The closely watched contest underscores the divide in the party and is a fresh test of whether left-leaning candidates, who have struggled in recent elections, can prevail over more moderate Democrats.
This is not Cisneros’s first bid against Cuellar. After interning for him in 2014, she waged a primary challenge six years later and came within 2,700 votes of defeating him. Cuellar was able to prevail thanks to decades of name recognition and a deep campaign account — he outspent her by $700,000.
But now, Cisneros is confident that years spent strengthening her relationship with the community, a stronger grass-roots campaign and a district redrawn to include more portions of liberal San Antonio will be enough to push her to a primary win.
When talking about her agenda, which includes support for abortion rights, Medicare-for-all and a more immigrant-friendly revamp of the nation’s system, Cisneros said her embrace is more than backing liberal ideals.
“When I talk about Medicare-for-all and why support that policy, I always talk about how when I was 13 years old, I had to help my family fundraise by selling plates of food to raise money … No 13-year-old or no family should have to do that,” Cisneros said. “It’s much easier for people to be able to grasp the concepts and policies that we’re running on if we do it that way, instead of trying to pigeonhole ourselves into one label or the other.”
Labels or not, Cisneros gladly campaigned with Ocasio-Cortez and welcomed the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). She received the support of Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund, and labor unions, including the Texas AFL-CIO. She backs policies that often stand at the opposite end of the Democratic spectrum from Cuellar’s, who is considered one of the most conservative members of Congress.
Cuellar is running on the promise that he will strike bipartisan deals in the House, telling voters in a recent campaign ad that he wants to “build relationships with both parties.”
“While people in Washington fight each other, who will fight for us?” Cuellar asks. “I will.”
Despite serving in a fiercely divided Congress, Cuellar has remained close to the center, often crossing party lines and touting his deals struck with Republicans. He has voted with Republicans to ban the coverage of abortion care for those insured through Medicaid, asked the Biden administration along with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to name a “border czar,” and was among a group of nine centrist Democrats who urged their party to pass the bipartisan infrastructure deal without first voting for Biden’s $3.5 trillion social spending package — a priority for liberal Democrats. The infrastructure deal was signed into law, but the social spending bill remains in limbo.
Cuellar’s willingness to break with his party on high-priority issues — most notably, the border and abortion — is what Cisneros is targeting.
Last September, Cuellar was the only House Democrat who voted against a bill that — in an attempt to nullify Texas’s S.B. 8, a near-total abortion ban — would have codified the right to an abortion into federal law. Cuellar’s colleagues criticized his decision, but Cuellar remained unmoved. For him, abortion is “not a health issue,” but a matter of conscience.
Cisneros accused him in an op-ed of not acting on behalf of reproductive health by voting to ban the coverage of abortion care for those insured through Medicaid and defund Planned Parenthood.
Cuellar dismissed her criticism.
“When people frame this as ‘women’s health’ … if you want to call it abortion, call it abortion, please call it abortion,” Cuellar said in a Zoom conference days after the op-ed. “Women’s health — I have added money for health care for women.”
Cuellar has criticized Cisneros, arguing that she supports two key issues pushed by liberal Democrats that he claims could have a negative impact on the district — a move toward more clean energy and less funding for the U.S. Border Patrol.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks before a campaign event for 28th District candidate Jessica Cisneros and 35th District candidate Greg Casar. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post)
“Cisneros is against oil and gas and I’m not going to vote to get rid of 40,000 jobs that are good paying jobs here,” Cuellar said in an interview with The Post.
While Cisneros has voiced support for the Green New Deal and the renewable energy industry, she’s pledged to be “a voice for workers in the fossil fuel industry to ensure no one gets left behind.”
On the border, Cuellar said he wanted to make sure “that we don’t have open borders or defund the police or attack Border Patrol.”
“Those are good paying jobs,” he said. “My opponent has said that my district is too dependent on Homeland Security jobs — that we totally disagree on.”
Like Cuellar, Cisneros is the daughter of migrant farmworkers. Her parents immigrated to Laredo from Mexico because her older sister needed medical care that was only available on this side of the border.
Cisneros has highlighted her background as an immigration lawyer to draw a contrast with Cuellar, who has become one of his party’s most outspoken critics of the Biden administration’s immigration policies. While he assailed many of former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies — he opposed the construction of a border wall — Cuellar has described the Biden administration as being too welcoming to immigrants.
He has also accused Biden of listening too much to “immigration activists” and not enough to those living on the border, including landowners and law enforcement officials.
Cuellar supports funding for programs meant to stabilize Central America’s Northern Triangle and of policies that would ramp up law enforcement across the border, a stance many Democrats have pushed against, arguing that the Biden administration’s handling of the border situation should be more humane, not more militarized.
Cisneros, meanwhile, constantly invokes her work defending immigrants from deportation during the Trump administration as evidence that her views on immigration are the opposite of Cuellar’s — and more attuned to her voters in her district, which is predominantly rural and Latino.
She supports the scrapping of a 1996 law passed during the Clinton administration that laid the groundwork for the country’s massive deportation system that still exists today.
“It was so heartbreaking and painful,” she said during a campaign event, of her work on deportation cases. “But I was representing so many people that reminded me of myself, of my family, and that the only difference between them and me was the fact that I was born in this country, that I just so happened to be born five minutes north of the river.”
While Cisneros is still running a grass-roots campaign like she did in 2020, her profile has grown, and so has her fundraising. Between the launch of her campaign in August and Dec. 31, Cisneros raised $812,000, a campaign spokeswoman said.
“There’s no question that she has a strong ground game,” said former Housing secretary Julián Castro, a Texas Democrat who endorsed Cisneros during her 2020 campaign. “If she has the strength, way above Cuellar, it’s not necessarily in money, it’s in people power.”
The race in the 28th District also comes on the heels of an FBI raid into Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters on Jan. 19. The congressman has maintained his innocence and vowed to remain in the race but has not specified why he’s under investigation.
While Democratic congressional leadership supports reelection of their incumbents, only House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has publicly endorsed Cuellar this election cycle. A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who endorsed Cuellar last time, did not respond to a request on whether she will endorse him again this year.
Cuellar told The Post he remains confident the Democratic Party leadership will continue supporting him, touting the investments he helped secure for other Texas Democratic campaigns, and the work he did for the Biden campaign in 2020.
As for voters in his district, he’s also confident their perspective on him hasn’t changed.
“It’s the same voters that we’ve had,” Cuellar said. “People have lived here for generations [who] know the work I’ve done.”
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