Rep. Henry Cuellar, Anti-Abortion Democrat, Declares Victory Over Jessica Cisneros in a Nail-Biter

Super PACs dumped millions to support Cuellar, and still the 17-year incumbent only barely eked it out on election night.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, Anti-Abortion Democrat, Declares Victory Over Jessica Cisneros in a Nail-Biter
Photo:Brandon Bell/Getty Images; AP Photo/Eric Gay (Getty Images)

Nine-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) appeared to fend off a challenge by progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros Tuesday night in an extremely competitive primary for the state’s 28th Congressional district. Super PACs dumped millions to support Cuellar and attack Cisneros, and still the 17-year incumbent only barely eked out the win on election night, winning by an apparent 177 votes.

Cuellar, 66, is the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House of Representatives, and Cisneros, 29, previously interned for the Congressman. The two candidates swapped places for the lead several times over the course of the night.

Cuellar’s campaign declared victory early on Wednesday, despite the race not having officially been called, writing, “The votes are in, the margin will hold. We have won by 177 votes.”

While Cuellar declared victory, a recount seems likely—either candidate can request a recount if the margin is less than 10 percent of the winning candidate’s vote tally, which appears to be the case here.

Cisneros has called Cuellar the Joe Manchin of Texas, referring to his conservative stances on oil, unions, immigration, child care, and abortion.

Cuellar faced several recent scandals, including a January FBI raid of his home and office and reporting from Jezebel that he fired a staffer at 28 weeks pregnant in 2018—who then had a stillbirth—and tried to discredit her after she sued his office for discrimination. Cuellar faced extra scrutiny over his anti-abortion stance following the leaked draft opinion suggesting that the Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade. Yet he still maintained support from Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), and House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).

Following the Supreme Court leak, Cisneros called on Democratic leadership to withdraw their support of Cuellar. “With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk,” she said. In September, Cuellar voted against the bill that would codify the right to have an abortion into federal law—making him the only Democrat to do so.

It’s remarkable that Cisneros had any chance against Cuellar, a 17-year incumbent in Texas, at all. In the March primary, Cisneros came within 1,000 votes of Cuellar, but neither candidate garnered 50 percent of the vote, which set up Tuesday’s runoff. Cisneros also challenged Cuellar in 2020 and came within 2,700 votes through a campaign run on what she described to Jezebel as “a shoestring budget.”

Super PACs spent millions on the race, with United Democracy Project—a group created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC—spending $1.2 million in Cisneros attack ads and “Mainstream Democrats PAC,” founded by LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman, dropping more than $430,000 in misleading ads on Cuellar’s abortion stance, claiming that he opposed an abortion ban.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who endorsed Cisneros, noted on Twitter that the runoff came on the same day as a horrific mass shooting at a high school in a neighboring Texas district and that Cuellar has a favorable rating from the National Rifle Association.

Texas’ 28th includes the border city of Laredo and parts of San Antonio. The general election will be on November 8. President Joe Biden won the district by 4.4 points in 2020.

Pundits will likely frame Cuellar’s win as a victory of centrists over the left and a warning sign for Democrats that abortion is a losing issue in purple districts or majority-Latino districts, where largely Catholic voters may hold conservative views on abortion. I guess, but Cuellar is a longtime incumbent with support from the country’s top three Democrats and super PACs. It could just be that the man still has a firm grip on power.

This is a breaking news post and will be updated when the race is officially called.

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