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Government/Politics

FBI raids, 'open borders,' and abortion: Here’s what Cisneros and Cuellar are fighting for in the D28 runoff

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Graphic by Rob Martinez
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Texas Public Radio

Tension within the Democratic party is on full display once again in South Texas’ 28th congressional district, where two diametrically opposed Democrats are battling for the party’s future.

After trading the lead all night of the March primary, nine-term incumbent Henry Cuellar — one of the most conservative Democrats in the House — is forced into his first runoff by his former intern, Jessica Cisneros. The young progressive lawyer narrowly lost to Cuellar in 2020 by 3.6 points. Since then, the nation’s eyes have been on District 28, which spans from San Antonio to Laredo to the Rio Grande Valley.

“The truth is the entire country is looking at this district right now,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said. He’s one of the high-profile progressives that came to San Antonio to stump for Cisneros earlier this year. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are also backing the 28-year-old immigration lawyer.

Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment is sticking with Cuellar even through some tumultuous times. The FBI raided his Laredo home and campaign office in February as part of a federal investigation into U.S. businessmen and their connections to Azerbaijan. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer says he was not the target of the raid and is cooperating.

The national spotlight on this race only brightened after news broke that the Supreme Court is planning to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Already considered one of the most conservative House Democrats for his votes on gun control and immigration, Cuellar is one of the last Democrats who identifies as pro-life and the only House Democrat that voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act last year.

Two days after the draft opinion leaked, Cuellar was in San Antonio rallying. He told TPR that he cannot support abortion as a Catholic and believes there should be exceptions in the cases of rape, incest or danger to a mother’s health.

“I don't believe in abortion, but at the same time, I don't believe that it should be banned completely… At the same time, I don't think we should be allowing partial birth or late term abortions,” he said.

Cisneros had already distinguished herself from Cuellar with her support for Medicare for All and pro-labor legislation, but she’s zoomed in on her pro-choice stance on reproductive rights since the leak.

“We are seeing the most direct attack on abortion care and reproductive freedom in this country and, in a district that is reliably blue like ours, we need someone that's actually going to champion the rights of constituents here in this district,” she says. “And Henry Cuellar has failed to do that.”

Related: San Antonio's abortion rights supporters join nationwide rallies

When TPR asked Cuellar to respond to Cisneros’ criticism on his abortion stance, Cuellar pivoted and said, “I do know her position. She does believe in defunding the police, defunding Border Patrol — open borders. There's a lot of issues out there, and she needs to spend some time on how she's going to defend the border.”

Cisneros, who supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more humane treatment of migrants at the border, has been at odds with Cuellar’s hardline stances that have aligned him with Republicans in some instances.

Even as Democrats view this race as crucial to their chances of holding onto a House majority next year, leaders in the House tout his ability to reach across the aisle.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who was stumping for Cuellar at the San Antonio rally, told reporters, “This whole notion that you’ve got to agree with everybody on everything is pretty sophomoric to me.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also reaffirmed her support for Cuellar since the leak and said the Party “didn’t need him” to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act through the House last year.

Earlier this month, the Senate failed to pass the same legislation in a vote of 49 to 51. In response, Cisneros told TPR that “every single vote does matter” while at San Antonio’s Bans Off Our Bodies Rally earlier this month.

“I just want her [Pelosi] to know that she's going to have a much better partner with me in terms of trying to deliver for not just Americans, but also people here in South Texas,” she said.

Cook Political Report considers the Cuellar-Cisneros runoff to be a toss-up, one many across the country will be paying close attention to Tuesday night.

That includes Republicans, who have eyed the 28th congressional district as a potential pickup opportunity. They are targeting this seat as one of five in Texas they believe they can flip.

There’s also a runoff on the GOP side Tuesday between Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz, and Sandra Whitten, a preschool director and the last GOP nominee for the seat, to see who will go up against the winner.

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