With FBI Investigating Cuellar, Cisneros Looks to Make Move In Texas

When the FBI raided the home and campaign office of Representative Henry Cuellar, it shook up the race for the 28th congressional district in Texas, one that Cuellar has held since 2005 and where he beat back his current challenger, Jessica Cisneros, two years ago.

The FBI called the January raid "court-authorized law enforcement activity," with local news reports saying boxes were taken from Cuellar's home by the FBI's Evidence Response Team. ABC News reported that a federal grand jury probe sought records from organizations with ties to Azerbaijan, a country Cuellar has worked to forge ties with in Congress and in Texas.

Cuellar addressed the FBI probe in a video released by his campaign.

"There is an ongoing investigation that will show that there is no wrongdoing on my part," he said, adding that "I pride myself on being your congressman and always doing things honestly, ethically and the right way."

Cisneros, who lost to Cuellar by four points in the 2020 Democratic primary, is looking to capitalize on her opponent being mired in an investigation by making the argument that it's just the latest example of the type of behavior for which she's criticized him.

"One symptom of Henry Cuellar's approach and track record in Congress is him not fighting for the best interest of people in the district, but for people helping him out politically, through campaign donations, and dealings now coming to light," she told Newsweek, one week ahead of the beginning of early voting on Valentine's Day.

"We still don't know a lot," she added, "but we know the task force involved in the investigation is the one in the FBI that investigates bribery and corruption."

One effect of the investigation on the campaign is that Cuellar went up on TV early, with Cisneros following. In her first ad she spoke of how the high cost of health care affected her family, and she highlighted her support for Medicare for All. She underscored her progressive views, but did not mention the Cuellar investigation.

Cisneros says the investigation "forced people to think about the election a couple weeks ahead of when they normally do," and that her staff has heard voters bring it up when they hear it's Cisneros' campaign knocking their door or phone banking.

Tory Gavito, the president of Way to Win, a top progressive donor network that helped raise $110 million during the 2020 cycle, knows Cisneros from their shared circle as immigration lawyers in Texas.

She said Cisneros understands that the law could be used "not just as a shield to defend immigrants, but as a sword put to government actors who were not following immigration laws to the detriment of immigrants."

Gavito said the Cisneros campaign offers voters in these key district a real choice.

"If there are no other options, no other voices in these border regions in south Texas, how does one expect people in that region to choose to remain a Democrat?" she told Newsweek. "Cuellar, by continuing to tack to the right and align with Trumpism, is providing an entry point for Latinos to join the Republican cohort. That's not what Democrats should be doing."

For their part, Republicans are publicly acting as if they're in the cat bird seat in the race, casting the choice in the Democratic primary as being between an "avowed socialist" in Cisneros or a "corrupt congressman" Cuellar.

But some Democrats working in Texas, including Cisneros allies, say defeating Cuellar will be difficult.

One Democrat who is working on nearly 10 races in Texas told Newsweek that Cisneros' close four-point loss in 2000 came in a cycle when Donald Trump was a major motivating factor for Democratic voters, one which created a "20-point turnout spike in almost every demo," which "is not going to happen this time."

"A really small electorate of old primary voters doesn't bode well for her," the source said. "She's banking on trying to motivate new people, but the electorate will look way more like 2014 than it did in 2018 or 2020."

There is also a belief among some Democrats that while Cisneros' stances on abortion and women's reproductive rights could help her edge out the conservative Cuellar, who has drawn the ire of women's groups by saying that abortion is "not women's health," she could lose to a Republican in a general election as a candidate who is farther to the left than Cuellar.

But Cisneros seems to be leaning into a fight around abortion and women's reproductive rights — and the gulf between her and Cuellar on the issue — as evidenced by her website.

A "red box" around campaign-approved text is seen by consultants as a way of legally sending a message to outside groups on how the campaign would like to frame itself against their opponent.

Cisneros' "red box" said liberals, voters under 50, and women over 50 need to know that "Cuellar opposes a women's right to choose, voted repeatedly to defund Planned Parenthood and voted against protecting women's healthcare after Texas recently passed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country, even in cases of rape and incest," it reads in part. "Jessica Cisneros is the pro-choice Democrat who will fight to protect reproductive healthcare for all Texas women."

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A red box on Jessica Cisneros website is seen by Democrats as approved messaging from her campaign, a sign they are comfortable highlighting the gulf between her and Cuellar on abortion. Jessica Cisneros website

Gavito said that the more Cisneros can distinguish herself from Cuellar and his policies, the more it will "energize a sector of people who will have women's health at the top of their minds," before going on to cite Texas having one of the highest maternal mortality rates and women in rural areas dying at higher rates.

Colin Rogero, a Democratic consultant working on multiple races in Texas, said a potential danger for Cuellar is that Cisneros came very close to unseating him, and now has built-in name ID and is not starting from scratch.

"Cuellar has over time billed himself as a bipartisan Democrat, but these are not normal times and that could be a challenge now with primary voters," Rogero said. "The fact that he has stood with Republicans who have lurched to the right on women's health care is going to upset people and is a real vulnerability for him."

Cisneros has been embraced by national progressive figures, including popular progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who announced a February 12 rally in Texas for Cisneros and Greg Casar, who is running for Congress in the 35th district.

Some Cisneros allies have privately wondered if Ocasio-Cortez, who also serves as a flashpoint with more moderate and conservative voters, will have a negative impact on her campaign, but Cisneros dismissed those concerns.

"People say that she may not have the effect we want, but we had 1,000 tickets and they sold out in hours, and now people are asking if more tickets will be made available and if there will be any additional programming," Cisneros said.

She added that Ocasio-Cortez brings a large national platform that can help "activate" people who might not yet know about the campaign.

Gavito doesn't just believe that progressives have to win races like the one between Cuellar and Cisneros for the sake of the movement, but because they bring out the kinds of infrequent voters that are needed at the top of the ticket by candidates like Beto O'Rourke, who is running for governor.

"I feel strongly it will support the top of the ticket and Beto's run to have bright, hardworking campaigners, even in safe districts," she added. "Greg Casar and Cisneros continue to work to build an electorate that will help Beto, too, and he will need all that down-ballot energy to lock down Latino support."

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Jessica Cisneros, a progressive challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar, is seizing an opportunity to differentiate herself from the longtime congressman after an FBI investigation led to a raid of his home and campaign office. Courtesy Jessica Cisneros campaign