Jessica Cisneros vs Henry Cuellar Is Fight for Future of Democratic Party

A primary race in Texas' 28th congressional district may prove to be a fight for the future of the Democratic Party as a sitting congressman backed by senior members of the party faces off against an insurgent progressive.

Representative Henry Cuellar is the only anti-abortion Democrat in the House of Representatives and he's facing a tough challenge from immigrant rights attorney Jessica Cisneros, who has made Cuellar's views on abortion an election issue.

The primary runoff election takes place on Tuesday after Cuellar failed to win enough support to win the nomination on March 2, when less than 1,000 votes separated him from Cisneros.

Tuesday's contest may be seen as a test both of the power of the Democratic establishment and the importance of abortion as an issue in the primaries and the upcoming midterm elections.

Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros
Tuesday's primary runoff election could give an indication about the future of the Democratic Party. Left, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Right, progressive Democratic Congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros at a campaign rally in San Antonio, Texas on May 20, 2022. Kevin Dietsch/Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty

Cuellar enjoys the support of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has continued to publicly back the congressman despite his views on abortion and his decision to vote against the Women's Health Protection Act of 2021, which would have codified abortion rights into federal law. He was the only Democrat to do so.

Beyond Pelosi's support, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn campaigned for Cuellar in San Antonio earlier in May and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, has donated to Cuellar's campaign. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has also expressed support for Cuellar.

Cisneros has been endorsed by Representative Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

If Cisneros can defeat Cuellar on Tuesday, it will represent a major upset and a blow to national Democratic leadership, who have thrown their support behind the congressman, who was first elected in 2004.

It would also represent a victory for a Democrat who is taking a different approach to fundraising. While Cisneros has not accepted donations from corporate political action committees (PACs) and lobbyists, Cuellar has in the past accepted funding from the National Rifle Association and PACs associated with the oil and gas industry.

Nonetheless, Cisneros managed to outraise Cuellar, bringing in $4.5 million as of May 4, compared to the congressman's fundraising of $3.1 million.

The Democratic candidates also appear to differ on immigration, with Cuellar joining Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in July 2021 in writing a letter to President Joe Biden calling for the appointment of a border czar.

Cuellar has been a persistent critic of Biden's handling of the U.S.-Mexico border and suggested at the time his letter was released that "his administration is listening only to the immigration activists."

Cisneros has worked on behalf of immigrant families and asylum seekers and part of her campaign calls for more humane immigration policies.

But it's abortion that's become the biggest flash point in the race in recent weeks following the leak of a draft Supreme Court majority opinion on May 2 that appeared to show five of the nine justices were poised to overturn the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision in Roe v. Wade.

Cisneros called for the Democratic leadership to "withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House" following that leak and her campaign has since taken aim at the congressman for his stance on abortion.

It remains to be seen if abortion will be a decisive factor in the primary race but Cisneros' campaign is posing a major challenge for Cuellar and the Democratic establishment.

Newsweek has asked Henry Cuellar's and Jessica Cisneros' offices for comment.