Henry Cuellar, last pro-life House Democrat, fights for political survival in Texas


Progressive Democrats are on the verge of purging the last pro-life House Democrat from the party Tuesday in a runoff election in southwest Texas.

That’s where eight-term Rep. Henry Cuellar is defending his left flank in a hard-fought Democratic primary race against progressive darling Jessica Cisneros

Ms. Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer and former Cuellar intern, is hoping the second time’s the charm after losing to the incumbent two years ago. 

Since the leak of a Supreme Court draft decision overruling Roe v. Wade, Ms. Cisneros has made “reproductive freedom” a central focus of her closing message and repeatedly reminded voters Mr. Cuellar is the “last anti-choice Democrat in the U.S. House.”

“In Congress, we’ll fight for representation that will champion the hard-working people of South Texas by investing in us through Medicare for All, good-paying union jobs, and our reproductive freedom,” she said in a recent email blast.

For his part, Mr. Cuellar has walked a fine line, telling voters he supports abortion in cases of rape and incest.

“Democrat Henry Cuellar is standing up for south Texas families by working every day to hold down our cost of living — that means lower drug prices, health care we can afford, assistance for child care, and a $15 minimum wage,” the narrator says in a Cuellar television ad. “And with women’s rights under attacks from extremist, Democrat Henry Cuellar has made it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion.”

The message has not been enough to appease many fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill who have rallied behind Ms. Cisneros.

“At a time when our reproductive freedoms are under attack by an extremist Supreme Court, we must elect pro-choice candidates that will fight to make sure abortion remains the law of the land,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a recent endorsement. “Jessica Cisneros embodies the kind of progressive we need in Congress.”

Mr. Cuellar also faced an unwanted distraction early this year when the FBI raided his home and campaign office. In April, his attorney said the FBI informed Mr. Cuellar that he was not the subject of the investigation. By then, however, Ms. Cisneros‘ allies had already made the most of the episode.

The Texas Tribune also reported that Ms. Cisneros‘ fundraising spiked after the FBI raid, while Mr. Cuellar‘s tapered off.

Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have endorsed Ms. Cisneros

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, both of New York, as well as Reps. Katie Porter of California and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts also are all-in for Ms. Cisneros.

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America, said the push to eradicate pro-life Democrats is alienating voters that otherwise side with the party.

“The progressive wing of the Democratic Party really doesn’t care about the health of the Democratic party itself,” Ms. Day said. “It only cares about its agenda and that is clear with this race because if Henry Cuellar doesn’t win the primary the seat is going to go red in the November election.” 

“So it would be one less seat for Democrats,” she said.  “The Democratic Party has to take a serious look at how they treat people who believe life in the womb is worthy of protection.”

Voters in Texas on Tuesday will also decide the runoff race between embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton and George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. 

Voters also will head to the polls for primary elections in Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia. 

Left-wing Democrats are fighting to change the Democratic Party from the inside and push it further to the left, including on abortion.

Those forces could be on the verge of notching a pair of victories in recent primary races. In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Summer Lee narrowly leads Steve Irwin in the 12th Congressional District. In Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner leads Rep. Kurt Schrader in the 5th Congressional District.

Mr. Cuellar still has powerful allies on his side.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn are backing him.

“I support my incumbents,” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference in Austin in March. “I support every one of them, from right to left. That is what I do.”

Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and EMILY’s List are supporting Ms. Cisneros.

Pro-life Democrats are hoping a Cuellar victory will provide some momentum for other anti-abortion Democrats, including Chris Butler, a Black candidate running in Illinois’s 1st Congressional District.

“I think we have to make room in this part for folks that understand that the fundamental right to make a decision of when and where you are going to have a baby is a real freedom that we need to protect, but offering an abortion is just not the way to protect that freedom,” Mr. Butler said during a recent appearance on Fox and Friends. “We should just ignore the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, Frederick Douglas and the work of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Black denomination in the United States today.”

“We can’t just say to all these folks there is no room for you in the party,” Mr. Butler said.

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