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The progressive push to oust the last anti-abortion House Democrat, explained

A South Texas runoff could show how motivating abortion rights can be for voters.

Cuellar, clean shaven with close-cropped dark hair, sits at a red tablecloth-covered desk, a binder open in front of him. Wearing a dark navy suit, white shirt, and bright blue tie, he speaks with his arms raised. He’s framed by the back of spectators’ heads.
Rep. Henry Cuellar speaks during a congressional meeting on the US/Mexico border in 2018.
Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar was already facing a close runoff in Texas’s 28th Congressional District on May 24, but the recent Supreme Court leak has renewed focus on one potential vulnerability: his record on abortion.

Cuellar, a nine-term Congressman and longtime fixture in his South Texas district, is now the last standing House Democrat who has taken anti-abortion stances. Cuellar’s challenger, progressive Jessica Cisneros, has blasted him on the issue, arguing that “he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk.”

Though Cisneros and her allies are working to ensure abortion rights shape the race, it’s not yet clear to what extent the issue will affect people’s votes. While Democratic strategists say the fight for abortion rights has energized a segment of voters in the region, Cuellar — whose campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment — has said his views are in line with those in the district.

“If his opponent is going to say that we need to kick him out of office because he’s not in favor of abortion, I don’t think that’s going to get very far. I don’t see that being the deciding factor,” says state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Cuellar supporter who also represents part of the district.

Cuellar is one of few congressional Democrats to take a hardline position on abortion. Last year, Cuellar was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, legislation to codify the protections from Roe v. Wade. Cuellar maintains that his position hasn’t changed, but notes that he opposes an abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest, and a mother’s health.

The outcome of the race could offer an early indication of how much the issue of abortion rights energizes Democratic voters. In the March primary, Cisneros and Cuellar were within roughly 2 percentage points of one another, with a third candidate, Tannya Benavides, capturing almost 5 percent of the vote.

“My sense is that it is pretty close,” says Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic strategist who’s not affiliated with either campaign. “I thought for a while that Henry was in better shape in the runoff, and he probably still is. But the Supreme Court leak did change the dynamics. It might have excited her base a little bit.”

Abortion rights have energized some voters in the district

Texas’s 28th Congressional District has been blue for years, though it’s more moderate and socially conservative than the typical district that progressives have gone after. President Joe Biden won the newly drawn version of the district by just 7 points in 2020, compared to, for example, the more than 60 points he won by in the Missouri district where progressive Rep. Cori Bush felled a longtime incumbent that year.

A predominantly Latino district that includes many Catholic voters, the Texas 28th stretches from the more liberal San Antonio region to more moderate voting bases in Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. Though those demographics may suggest the voters in the district skew anti-abortion, local political experts told Vox that views on abortion rights in the area match up to those in the state overall. According to an April 2022 University of Texas poll, Texas voters are split on the subject, with a plurality who identify as pro-abortion.

“They assume because it’s South Texas and it’s Catholic that it’s a pro-life district. Texas mirrors the national opinions, and even places like Laredo are pro-choice,” says George Shipley, a longtime Democratic consultant in Texas who’s not affiliated with either campaign.

Organizers and Democrats on the ground say they’ve seen the leaked Supreme Court decision energize many voters including young people and women. “I’m Catholic, and yes I’m anti-abortion, but I’m for a woman’s right to choose. I know what just happened has sparked a real response that we didn’t see in 2020,” says Sylvia Bruni, the chair of Webb County Democrats, who’s not affiliated with or backing either candidate.

Still, it’s an open question whether this outrage translates to the polls. Older, more conservative voters are among those more likely to back Cuellar, and historically more likely to show up for a runoff election. “There’s a lot of old-school folks. And as you know, in runoffs, old-school folks vote,” says Susan Korbel, a member of the Bexar County Blue Action Democrats and candidate for a Bexar County commissioner seat, who’s not backing either candidate.

And as is the case in districts across the country, few if any TX-28 residents are single-issue voters. Observers note that voters are weighing a number of issues, including wages and jobs, in addition to abortion rights.

The outcome could say a lot about the party’s future

The results in this race could send a strong message about the strength of the progressive wing of the party, and the degree to which abortion rights are a motivating issue for many voters.

“If she wins, it’s going to send a message to every Democrat that thinks they can equivocate on choice, that they can equivocate on women’s health, that they won’t be able to do that,” says Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president of NextGen America and founder of a statewide group dedicated to mobilizing Latino voters in Texas.

Outside organizations like Planned Parenthood Action Fund and Naral are also working to send that message. They’ve mobilized heavily in the wake of the leak, with Naral sending four organizers to the district and launching a new digital ad. Cisneros, meanwhile, has called for House leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who back Cuellar, to withdraw their support over his anti-abortion stance. They’ve argued, though, that they welcome a diverse range of viewpoints in the Democratic caucus.

Progressives have eyed this district as a key target since 2020, when Cisneros came within 4 percentage points of Cuellar in the primary. In addition to abortion rights, Cisneros has sought to draw contrasts with Cuellar on issues like immigration, climate change, and corporate donations.

A Cuellar loss would be significant given how entrenched he is as an 18-year incumbent in the region and an even longer one in the state. Prior to serving in the House, he was a Texas Secretary of State and a state representative, and he has touted his leadership role in Congress as an important advantage for the district.

If her challenge is successful, Cisneros would have to keep the momentum going into the fall. Because the district is a moderate one, experts believe a progressive candidate is likely to have a tougher fight in a general election as Republicans try to cast them as too extreme. “I think the district is Democratic enough that Jessica can win, but I don’t think they should take it for granted,” says Angle.

Cisneros has emphasized that she’s focused on district outreach in her campaign, amid concerns that the region is shifting toward the right. “This area has been reliably Democratic for a very long time,” she previously told Vox. “But that’s also led a lot of incumbents to just take this community for granted. We’re offering an alternative vision of what South Texas can look like.”

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