Representing a safe district in Congress is one of the cushiest jobs in America. Both parties normally consider incumbents untouchable, and let politicians get away with just about anything so long as they continue to kowtow to party bosses. Rep. Henry Cuellar is a master of the craft, holding court over Texas’ 28th Congressional district for 17 years with few challenges despite his centrist politics, anti-abortion stance, and his recent implication in a bizarre political scandal involving Azerbaijan. This hasn’t been an issue for the Democratic Party, which has never made serious moves to codify Roe v. Wade into law, or even really recognized the issue exists outside of the occasional election year where it can be used as a cudgel to compel votes.
Cuellar is now facing a challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who is strongly pro-choice and would almost certainly join the “Squad” of left-wing Democrats in the House. She’s not a long-shot, either: Cuellar beat her by just three percent in the 2020 primary, and by less than two percent in the first round of the 2022 primary, sending the race to a runoff on May 24.
Democrats now have a choice as they stare down the best-case scenario of a razor-thin majority where they have to scramble for every vote in both houses. They could A) switch out a massive liability for a fresh-faced progressive, or B) double down on the anti-choice establishment incumbent at a time when abortion rights are on life support.
Guess which option they chose…
“When people tell you you need to agree on everything, I do not agree with Henry Cuellar on everything,” Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the most powerful lawmakers in the House, said at a Cuellar campaign event on Wednesday. “We need to sit down with people who we do not agree with and try to find common ground, to do what is necessary to move this country forward.”
Clyburn didn’t mention Cuellar’s abortion stance specifically, but given the current tenor around the leaked draft opinion that shows the Supreme Court is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, it’s pretty clear what he’s talking about. Clyburn and the rest of the party’s leadership — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who have both endorsed Cueller — is making the same choice they’ve made with Joe Manchin for years. They’re trusting the devil they know over the challenger who makes them uncomfortable. The strategy, as both Manchin’s entire career and the brief centrist revolt in the House over Biden’s social spending bill shows, has brought the party nothing but hell.
Cisneros, for her part, has been urging the party leadership to correct course in light of the leaked Supreme Court draft.
“I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” Cisneros said in a statement on Wednesday, per Politico. “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.”
The establishment may be taking that risk, but Cisneros is not without allies. She has the outspoken support of not just AOC — who stumped for her in San Antonio in February — but top progressive senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Cisneros’ and Cuellar’s endorsements lists are about as divided as they come: Cisneros dominates with labor unions and progressive nonprofits, as well as the party’s highest-ranking left-leaning figures, while Cuellar has a murderer’s row of party careerists and groups like the Pro-Israel America PAC.
The battle between the two, then, isn’t ideologically new. But with a rapidly shrinking margin of error, the Democratic establishment is still putting its money behind candidates who can’t be trusted to vote with the bloc on some of the biggest issues that matter. That’s not a coincidence or a mistake — it’s a choice. The outcome could mean that millions of other Americans lose their right to decide on something far greater.