Henry Cuellar, Jessica Cisneros runoff shows Texas Latinos’ diversity


None of the 2022 primary races disproves the myth of a Latino voting bloc monolith more than the contest between Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar and his progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros in a district that stretches from San Antonio to the U.S. border with Mexico. Their race provides a glimpse of what the future of Latino electoral politics in Texas and the United States might look like.

Cuellar issued a statement declaring the election over and congratulating Cisneros, a former intern in his office, “for a hard-fought race.”

It appears that Cuellar has won the primary, and it’s likely he will remain in the House. He declared victory the night of the May 24 election even though Cisneros hasn’t conceded. Then again Friday, with his lead over Cisneros at 281 votes, Cuellar issued a statement declaring the election over and congratulating Cisneros, a former intern in his office, “for a hard-fought race.”

Cisneros, according to a tweet from Texas Tribune reporter Patrick Svitek, was reportedly waitingto see the final canvass by the state party on Monday” before she concedes. But even though NBC News had not called the race as of Friday evening, it seemed certain that the so-called progressive wave of Texas Latino politics —especially in areas like South Texas had fallen short again.

After the draft of a Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked in May, Cisneros demanded that Democratic leadership rescind its support for Cuellar, the anti-abortion Democrat. The 15-year incumbent had earned the endorsements of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

On top of that, the FBI raided Cuellar’s office in as part of “a federal investigation into the country of Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to the country,” according to NBC News. Cuellar said in a statement that an investigation would show he did nothing wrong, and he has not been implicated in any crime.

Then on the day of the runoff, as voters were heading to the polls, the news came of the mass shooting in Uvalde just west of the 28th Congressional District. Cuellar’s “A” rating from the National Rifle Association was cited as another reason why Cisneros could defeat him. While Cuellar tweeted for everyone to “pray for peace” on Tuesday, Cisneros’ allies such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., shared a different message.

“On the day of a mass shooting and weeks after news of Roe, Democratic Party leadership rallied for a pro-NRA, anti-choice incumbent under investigation in a close primary. Robocalls, fundraisers, all of it. Accountability isn’t partisan. This was an utter failure of leadership,” Ocasio-Cortez argued in a series of tweets in a thread about why voters should choose Cisneros over Cuellar.

A recent profile of the candidates challenged the assumption that all Latino Democrats lean to the left in South Texas.

However, Cuellar, like any good incumbent, knows his constituents. A recent profile of the candidates challenged the assumption that all Latino Democrats lean to the left in South Texas.

“They think that if you are Hispanic you have to be far left, and that’s wrong,” Cuellar said. The incumbent says he delivers for his district and has “brought a congressional seat to the border area.”

This belief at times has gone squarely against the views of Latino immigration rights activists who believe that Cuellar is just a politician who keeps the immigration enforcement industry in business. It’s one of the reasons Cisneros, an immigration attorney, has now run against him twice. But not everyone wants to put the immigration enforcement industry out of business. As the Texas Tribune reported about race between Cuellar and Cisneros, the challenger had to confront “an avalanche of attack ads claiming she would take jobs away from South Texas due to her 2019 suggestion to ‘split ICE in half and reassign enforcement functions to other agencies.’”

Yet another Cuellar victory will certainly sting progressives across the country, but from a purely political calculation, he may be the best chance for Democrats to fend off recent gains Republicans have made in South Texas. In South Texas, it was in Cuellar’s border counties that Joe Biden performed his best in the 2020 presidential election. Despite the apparent hypocrisy of Democratic leadership supporting Cuellar as they challenge the NRA and fight for abortion rights, he remains the Democrats’ best hope of Democrats keeping that seat.

A candidate is unlikely to win a congressional district against an entrenched moderate incumbent that is 80 percent Latino by following a progressive blueprint that works in other parts of the country. That candidate can’t make an electorate progressive when it isn’t. South Texas is getting younger and more Latino, which suggests there might be a progressive wave one day. News that progressive Michelle Vallejo won her primary runoff by 33 votes in another South Texas district showed signs of a such a wave, but it is just a start. Cisneros has tried to push an entrenched Democratic leadership in a more progressive direction, but she’s learned that her district isn’t so progressive yet.