Tuesday is Election Day in Texas, as well as other places in which everything is not bigger. In the 28th District, which runs along a stretch of the Rio Grande at the border and then kind of lurches up and over to the eastern suburbs of San Antonio, incumbent Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros are in a runoff.
Cuellar has been in office since 2005 and holds positions that could be described as moderate or even conservative. Cisneros, who lost to Cuellar by 4 points when she ran against him in 2020, is 28 years old and has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders. The primary is thus a binding referendum on whether the Democratic Party should be “centrist” or “leftist.” That’s it! End of article.
No, not really. There is more to discuss, in particular Cuellar’s most notoriously conservative position, which is that abortion should only be legal in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. He and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin were the only Democrats who did not support the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would guarantee the right to abortion until the point of fetal viability as a matter of federal law and was voted down in the Senate on May 11.
Cisneros is pro-choice, and had been working to highlight Cuellar’s record of voting against abortion rights even before news broke that the Supreme Court may be about to overturn Roe v. Wade. In addition to her endorsements from progressive figures like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, she is also backed by more traditionally mainstream pro-choice Democratic groups like EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
There’s also the matter of Cuellar’s house having been raided in January by the FBI as part of what ABC News reports is a federal grand jury investigation into potentially illegal influence operations carried out by the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan.
“In addition to other information,” the network reported, “the subpoena reviewed by ABC News seeks records ‘relating to anything of value’ that the congressman, his wife, and others close to them may have been offered by certain business leaders or foreign officials.” Cuellar has been publicly involved in (seemingly!) anodyne relationship-building between the United States and Azerbaijan, which is on friendly terms with the U.S. generally. He has not been accused of any crime.
For her part, Cisneros is said to have put relatively more time and energy this cycle into ragging on Cuellar for being out-of-touch, low-energy, and captured by corporate special interests. The idea is to give voters a reason to choose Cisneros—purportedly the more energetic and in-touch alternative—even if they are not particularly interested in her positions on, for example, the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”
Cuellar won the race last time and polled ahead of Cisneros (albeit only by 1.5 points) in the open March election that triggered the runoff. His conservative positions on issues such as abortion, immigration, and fossil fuels are not especially incongruous in a heavily Catholic district whose major employers include immigration enforcement agencies and oil and gas companies. Despite the FBI raid and his abortion stance, he still has the active support of Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders—which probably speaks to some combination of their incentive to protect incumbent members of their caucus, a barely veiled distaste for the Sanders/Squad-wing of the party to which Cisneros belongs, and their genuine nervousness about whether a vocal progressive can win in the district.
South Texas is shifting rightward in general. Hillary Clinton won TX-28 by 20 points, but Joe Biden only won it by 7. Many reasons have been suggested to explain why, including the importance of border security and energy to the region’s economy, its rural culture, Tejano Hispanics identifying as “white” rather than “Latino,” and even Donald Trump’s embodiment of the concept of machismo. Cisneros herself suggests that Democrats have lost voters’ trust by failing to deliver on their promises. (Of note: The redistricting process added voters to the 28th from Bexar County, which includes San Antonio and went for Biden over Trump by a margin of 58 to 40.)
Whatever the reason, the general election will be considered a toss-up no matter who wins the Dem primary, particularly given the unpopularity of the incumbent Democratic president. It would not be shocking if a Republican ended up winning the 28th comfortably. The GOP is backing former Ted Cruz staffer Cassy Garcia in its own runoff; Garcia’s website and social media feeds depict a polished, careful candidate—a very conservative one, but not of the reckless MAGA variety.
Each Democrat in the race has general-election liabilities. Cisneros might be perceived as too liberal by voters who have started gravitating toward Republicans, while Cuellar, uh, recently had his home raided by FBI agents investigating potentially illegal influence operations carried out by the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan. In what’s widely anticipated to be a bad election season for Democrats, it’s possible that this runoff is a competition to see who has the honor of standing on a beach to be obliterated by a giant wave. (As occurs, of course, in the 1998 film Deep Impact, which, of the asteroid movies released in 1998, is probably the one more aligned with a Democratic worldview.)
Nonetheless! If Cisneros wins, Democrats must embrace full communism, to the extent of wearing Soviet-era fur hats on the floor of Congress, even when it’s warm out; if Cuellar wins, Nancy Pelosi finally gets to put AOC in jail. Let’s get it on!