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Jessica Cisneros Launches 2nd Primary Challenge For South Texas Congressional Seat

Jessica Cisneros looks through a chain link fence while knocking doors.
Reynaldo Leaños Jr.
Texas Public Radio
Jessica Cisneros looks through a chain link fence while knocking doors.

Immigrant rights attorney Jessica Cisneros is once again mounting a primary challenge against longtime Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar for Texas’ 28th Congressional District. The district includes Laredo, the Rio Grande Valley and south San Antonio.

The 28-year-old narrowly lost to Cuellar in 2020 coming within 4 percentage points of unseating the incumbent. Last year’s primary race garnered national attention as the rift between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party unfolded in South Texas.

The 2022 cycle is poised on a similar stage, but a shift in the political demographic could prove to be a hurdle after some longtime reliably Democratic South Texas counties flipped in 2020. This shift coupled with the contentious process of redistricting, which is expected to take place during a special legislative session later this year once the delayed U.S. Census data is released, is expected to change the boundaries of the 28th district before the primaries.

Cisneros received national support from high profile progressives including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has branded Cuellar as “Trump’s favorite Democrat” and amplified her critiques against the experienced incumbent during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I can’t stand to see my community suffer under failed leadership anymore, so I am back to finish what we started — to bring a voice to the South Texas community that believed in me and believed in a better future for themselves,” Cisneros in a statement. “I thought this pandemic would wake up our representative to the problems South Texans face daily, but Henry Cuellar proved to us once again that serving his Republican corporate donors matters more than serving our community.”

Justice Democrats, the national progressive group that recruited Cisneros for the 2020 race, will once again support her 2022 campaign. Cisneros will run on a similar agenda from her campaign last year advocating for Medicaid for All, immigration reform and supporting renewable energy resource initiatives, among other things.

Cisneros is not the sole candidate launching a challenge against Cuellar. Political newcomer Tannya Benavides of Laredo launched her campaign in June to represent the sprawling district.

Colin Strother, a spokesperson for Henry Cuellar’s campaign, said they weren't ready for a serious challenger in the previous election, which is why they won by a smaller than expected majority.

“The fact of the matter is, last campaign in 2020, we got caught a little by surprise,” said Strother.

He said that this campaign is different.

“We spent the last 15 months getting in shape, and completely tearing the campaign operations down to the studs, and rebuilt back up — we have a brand new team, we have brand new management, we have a new mindset, new attitude,” he said.

Cuellar has served as District 28's representative since 2005. Cisneros is running on a progressive platform, while Strother expects South Texans will resonate with Cuellar’s more conservative views.

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Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren