LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — The eyes of the nation are watching Tuesday’s runoff election for a South Texas border district that pits a long-time Democratic incumbent against an immigration lawyer who used to intern in his office.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar is vying to be the Democratic nominee and wants to win his 10th term in Congress in November. His opponent, Jessica Cisneros, just turned 29 and is a progressive Democrat who has repeatedly said this district “needs change.”
Both face off today in a runoff after neither secured 50% of the votes during the March 1 primary election. Cuellar garnered just 1,005 more votes than Cisneros in a nailbiter of a primary election where the percentages went up and down for both candidates in rapid swings throughout the night as votes were tallied.
In the end, Cisneros captured the urban votes in San Antonio, while Cuellar won their border hometown of Laredo, as well as the counties of Starr and Zapata on the Mexican border.
Tuesday’s runoff was featured in The New York Times and has been mentioned in almost every major media in the United States, and in The Guardian.
“Everybody is watching this race,” Natasha Altema McNeely, a political science associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley told Border report on Tuesday. “The outcome of this race is very important for the Democratic Party.”
Part of the reason is due to the high majority of Hispanic voters in this region. Also because it has been so polarizing: a progressive Democrat vs. a moderate who has been accused of siding too often with Republicans.
But that is how Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Committee and arguably the most powerful lawmaker in South Texas, has remained in power. And that’s how he has negotiated with Republicans and helped to get billions of dollars in federal funds earmarked for this region.
“They are two polarizing figures due to where they fall on the ideological scale: One is a staunch moderate, his voting behavior signifies his conservatism, and in other end of the spectrum there’s a very progressive Democratic,” McNeely said.
Cisneros took aim at Cuellar recently for his anti-abortion views in light of leaked information that the Supreme Court could be planning to overturn Roe v. Wade. She also has criticized his support in past years for funding for the border wall.
In TV commercials, Cuellar has accused Cisneros of wanting to defund border security and eliminate Border Patrol jobs.
Just weeks prior to the primary election, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo. No charges have been filed against Cuellar who has said he is “fully cooperating with law enforcement and committed to ensuring that justice and the law is upheld.”
Cuellar, 66, has the backing of party leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, of Maryland; House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, of New York; and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.
Cisneros is an immigration lawyer and progressive who is backed by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont who traveled to San Antonio on Friday and held a Get Out the Vote rally with her. She also recently was endorsed by former Democratic opponent Tannya Benavides, who received 2,324, or nearly 5% of the votes in the primary election.
“I am so proud to have earned Tannya’s endorsement,” Cisneros said in a statement. “Tannya ran a people-powered campaign that focused on delivering for the working families of TX-28. In March, we forced a runoff and proved that more than half of this district is ready for new leadership that represents the needs of South Texas working families.”
“I got 171 public officials in the district to endorse me, including the top four people,” Cuellar told Border Report after the primaries.
Cuellar said most of Cisneros’ funding “comes from outside the district” including support from Justice Democrats.
“The Justice Democrats, the national folks do spend a lot of money. I was the one they tried to defeat last time so they’re coming back again,” Cuellar said.
Border Report has repeatedly requested interviews with Cisneros this year but their camp has never responded.
Polls close at 7 p.m. CDT and Border Report will update with a story as votes come in.