Progressives Dig in for Dog Fight to Knock Off Cuellar in Texas Runoff

It's Wednesday, and Jessica Cisneros has lived to fight another day.

And for Representative Henry Cuellar, her opponent, that's not a good thing.

With the Democratic primary results for the 28th Congressional District sitting at Cuellar with 48.5% and Cisneros at 46.8%, with 95% of the votes counted, the race is now headed to a May 24 runoff election.

The runoff requirement was met when a third candidate, Tannya Benavides, received 4.7% of the vote. She will not proceed to the runoff.

Texas progressives hope Cisneros will ultimately be victorious, because she offers an alternative to the anti-abortion nine-term congressman.

"Tonight's outcome for Cisneros is good — she was in an uphill battle against an incumbent and is holding him to a razor-thin margin," Tory Gavito, president of progressive donor network Way to Win, told Newsweek.

She said her group will be looking for signs of voter intimidation and suppression in the race. But she noted that the 3-way primary may provide a lift for Cisneros.

"In a run-off she can pick up Benavides' votes, the third candidate in the race," Gavito said.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former U.S. Senate candidate in Texas and the president of NextGen America, said she always knew it would be a close race between a congressman with the power of incumbency and a progressive Latina.

She cautioned Cisneros supporters on what an expected low-turnout runoff really means.

"Progressives need to throw down in that race," she said, "because in a runoff you win by ground game," she said, but noted that money alone won't put Cisneros over the top.

The Indivisible Project told Newsweek it sent over 58,000 texts in TX-28 and TX-35 at text-banking parties to spread the word about candidates and encourage early voting.

It also made an early investment in bilingual digital advertising to introduce Cisneros to new parts of the district, serving over 5 million impressions, and sent 63,000 bilingual mailers to district households "exposing a culture of corruption around Henry Cuellar."

The group says runoff plans are not yet finalized, but it intends to max out donations to Cisneros again, mobilize its Texas network and national volunteers, and work with coalition partners for smart spending on additional mail, print, radio and digital ads.

While even intra-party primary races often get tough, the battle between Cisneros and Cuellar became personal.

After Cuellar's home and campaign office were raided by the FBI in January as part of an investigation into organizations with ties to Azerbaijan, Cisneros and allied groups shifted gears, with messaging that Cuellar had always been "corrupt."

In an interview with Newsweek, Cisneros said "we know the task force involved in the investigation is the one in the FBI that investigates bribery and corruption."

For his part, Cuellar's website accused his opponent of supporting defunding the police and border patrol, which would mean lost jobs in their south Texas district.

He slammed the visit of high-profile progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Texas in support of Cisneros, and released an ad called "Law Enforcement" that claimed her policies would lead to "open borders" that would make the community "less safe."

Mario Carrillo, the Texas-based campaign manager for America's Voice, an immigration advocacy group, called the ad "appalling," and said that should she win, Cisneros' background as an immigration attorney would serve as a salve that would elevate the humanity of immigrants.

In a statement, the Cuellar campaign said the 28th congressional district had spoken, with Cuellar "winning the most votes and showing the largest amount of support" ahead of a runoff the campaign is "confident" it will win.

There is an expectation among some progressives that the nearly 5% of the vote that went to the other Latina candidate, Benavides, would simply transfer over to Cisneros in the runoff. But there is no guarantee that will happen. Cuellar has shown he can outraise Cisneros, and while she led for part of Tuesday night as the results came in, he ended the night on top.

In an interview with Newsweek before election day, a senior source in his campaign maintained that only Cuellar could hold the seat from a Republican challenge in November, and that Democrats like Cuellar, not like Cisneros, are needed in Texas to help hold the Democratic majority in Congress.

Still, progressives who cheered the win of Greg Casar in 35th Congressional District believe an eventual Cisneros win would show that the border region is ready for something new, and is not closed off to progressive ideas.

Rick Levy, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO labor union, spoke to Newsweek of the changing climate in the country and the world. He connected with the way many have embraced Ukraine's fight against towering odds, and spoke of a rejection of the status quo in Texas.

"People are looking for something different," Levy said. "Sometimes it's a hero, but there have also been workers organizing union campaigns in places like Starbucks."

He said people are getting the message that the economic deck is stacked against them, and connecting with someone on an emotional level "has the chance to change everything — it's the only thing that can."

While it makes sense that progressives want to grow their foothold in Texas, Cisneros is also the preferred candidate of some operatives trying to make Beto O'Rourke the next governor of Texas amid a difficult 2022 climate.

Asked if a Cisneros win over Cuellar would be a boon for O'Rourke, showing that voters are looking for changes in leadership, a source close to the campaign responded "without a doubt."

"Cuellar sits on his money and doesn't give to the party," the source said. "Cisneros will energize voters and continue to bring out the diverse coalition we need to win."

Carrillo of America's Voice acknowledged that Cuellar, who has been in office almost two decades, is an "institution" in south Texas, but said you'd be "hard pressed" to find that the lives of those in his district are significantly better off.

"He's out of touch, in my mind, with the future of our state," Carillo said, "which is young people of color."

"We're a young state still finding our political footing," he added, "and Jessica tapped into something in 2020 and is looking to finish the job this time."

jessica cisneros election day
Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros (TX-28) concludes a speech alongside her family during a watch party on March 01, 2022 in Laredo, Texas. Late results hint that Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) could face a primary runoff with neither getting more than the 50 percent necessary for an outright win. Brandon Bell/Getty Images