Politics

The Looming Henry Cuellar Conundrum

It’s a problem that could have been avoided if Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders hadn’t gotten involved.

A collage of photos of Henry Cuellar, Nancy Pelosi, protesters, and pro-choice protest signs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Matt McClain/the Washington Post via Getty Images, Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images, and Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

Abortion has upended the political landscape, giving Democrats a fighting chance in the midterms. That they could maybe, possibly, hold on to their narrow majority in the House, for example, is an outcome that seemed unthinkable before Roe’s repeal.

Now, election forecasters are flashing more favorable odds. New voter registrations are surging, especially in red states, where abortion restrictions are the most extreme, and about 56 percent of voters say abortion will be very important in their midterm vote, according to a Pew survey from August. Democrats are running nationally on a promise to codify Roe, and the three largest pro-choice organizations in the country—Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and EMILY’s List—have pledged to spend an astonishing $150 million toward the midterms to help them do it.

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There’s one big problem, though: Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the only anti-abortion Democrat in the House.

Pro-choice organizations are refusing to put a dime toward reelecting him. And he’s running in a crucial swing district, one on which the whole Democratic majority in the House could hinge—and where Republicans are spending big.

In an especially grating twist, the whole situation could have been easily avoided.

Cuellar, 67, who represents South Texas’ 28th District, which includes parts of San Antonio and Laredo, has been one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress since he turned up in 2005. A reliable ally of congressional Republicans, most recently voting against Democrats’ semi-automatic weapons ban, Cuellar has been embraced by Democratic leadership who see him as someone who can attract a coalition of more socially conservative voters, especially Latinos. (Or at least, that’s one of the reasons they have overlooked more than a decade of votes in support of national abortion bans and efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.)

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But that wisdom seems unsupported. Cuellar was at risk of losing his primary this year to a 28-year-old progressive immigration attorney named Jessica Cisneros, who also almost beat him in 2020. She ran a dynamic campaign, championing the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All,” and a $15 minimum wage. (His more centrist campaign was stalked by scandal: In February, his home was raided by FBI agents investigating potentially illegal influence operations carried out by Azerbaijan; he has not been accused of a crime.)

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The primary was so close that it went to a runoff and a recount, and Cuellar would have almost certainly lost if Democratic leadership had not stepped in. Over the objections of the many pro-choice groups who took the rare step of endorsing Cisneros, four of the five top-ranking House Democrats—Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and Hakeem Jeffries—personally endorsed Cuellar. They recorded robocalls singing their support, donated money to his campaign, and hit the trail on his behalf.

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It was weird and unnecessary, and Democrats—it seems—didn’t extract a single concession from Cuellar for their efforts. Despite the Dobbs draft leaking three weeks before voting day, Cuellar refused to commit to enshrining Roe in law. As MSNBC put it at the time: “Dems thumbed their nose at women’s rights.” And now that Cuellar is in a toss-up race against Republican Cassy Garcia, that decision is coming home to roost.

Money Moves

To put into perspective just how much money the big pro-choice organizations are spending on the midterms, consider this: The $150 million they pledged exceeds the $110 million in cash the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee currently has on hand. (The DCCC has raised $250 million for the whole election cycle.) Money flooded into the coffers of pro-choice organizations after Roe was overturned; Planned Parenthood Action Fund alone reported a 4,000 percent increase in donations.

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All of that money is now sitting out the race in Texas’ 28th District.

Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, the group’s statewide political action committee, confirmed that it is spending and organizing extensively in South Texas for Democratic candidates at both the state and local level—even within the confines of Cuellar’s district—but that it has not committed and will not commit any resources to reelecting Cuellar. EMILY’s List also confirmed that it will be abstaining from the race.

“Planned Parenthood Texas Votes is working to elect abortion rights champions,” said Drucilla Tigner, deputy director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “We work year-round to engage the voters most impacted by attacks on reproductive rights, which includes those living in South Texas and along the border.”

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That groups who support pro-choice candidates (and in the case of EMILY’s List, women candidates) would not campaign for an anti-abortion male candidate may seem obvious. But those groups tend to work in lockstep with the Democratic Party, and the absence of their support is notable given the extremely high stakes of the South Texas swing district, which could conceivably decide whether Democrats hold or lose their majority. Texas’ 28th, which the Cook Political Review has pegged as somewhere between a true toss-up and leaning Democratic, is the sort of race that is a must-win for Democrats if they are going to hold that fragile majority and maintain any chance of passing federal abortion protections (or any other legislation, for that matter). On a playing field narrowed by redistricting, there’s a very real possibility that this one district could even decide which party has control of the House come January.

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Republicans have taken note.

Just last week, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP’s super PAC, reported a nearly $400,000 ad buy in the 28th District.

Protecting Cuellar in his vulnerable front-line seat will now be the sole responsibility of Democrats’ own campaign groups like the DCCC, which will have to use precious resources—ones that could have been spent on other crucial races—to fight an uphill battle, all to protect a candidate who is opposed to their agenda. (They also can’t rely on organized labor to chip in, as Cuellar is also the only House Democrat opposed to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the party’s major pro-union legislation).

According to Open Secrets, the race is already the DCCC’s 13th most expensive, and October has barely even begun. It’s likely to be one of the priciest House contests in the country.

A Maximally Chaotic Outcome

Now, consider this mind-numbing possibility: With polling suggesting that control of the House could be a true toss-up, there’s a possibility that Democrats could maintain control with as little as a one-member majority. If the DCCC is able to spend enough to save Cuellar in November, he could realistically represent that one member, and take the entire Democratic agenda hostage, a veritable Joe Manchin of the House—but on abortion. With turnover expected within Democratic leadership after November, a long-tenured member like Cuellar could soon find himself as one of the most powerful politicians inside a party elected with a mandate to protect abortion rights.

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The entire Democratic Party is running on the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enshrine federal abortion protections into law. “I promise you, I promise you, we’re going to codify Roe,” pledged President Joe Biden in September. Almost exactly a year ago, Cuellar was the lone Democrat in the House to vote against that very same Women’s Health Protection Act, a vote he has given every indication he would cast again.

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Why, then, did Democratic leadership bend over backward to embrace Cuellar?

In 2020, Hispanic voters broke for Trump substantially, especially in the Rio Grande Valley. Democrats are desperate to bring them back into the fold. (That trend got even more alarming when Republican Mayra Flores beat Democrat Dan Sanchez in a special election in South Texas’ 34th District earlier this year.)

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But Cuellar looks more like the problem than the solution. His position on abortion is far out of step with the Hispanic community. A recent CBS News poll taken following the Dobbs leak found that 72 percent of Hispanic voters wanted to see Roe stay as it was, a markedly higher clip than the 64 percent of Americans broadly who held that position. Despite the cascade of takes about the social conservatism of the Hispanic population, a handful of recent polls have indicated that 2 in 3 Hispanic voters support the right to abortion. That figure actually increases to 3 in 4 for Hispanic voters who identify as Catholic.

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What’s more, Texas is a red state with a vindictive abortion ban, and the 28th District in particular is more female than male, and considerably younger than the country on average. Its median age is just over 31 years. All of those conditions would set up Democratic success, if only the Democratic candidate were not the one remaining anti-abortion member of the caucus.

The least satisfying, most realistic explanation is that the current Democratic House leadership values personal relationships highly—in this case, more than its own agenda, and more, too, than the ever-important realities of fundraising. The question now is just how costly that commitment will prove to be.

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