As Carlos Soto criss-crossed San Antonio to knock doors for Jessica Cisneros, he’d encounter Democrats who told him, politely but firmly, that the 29-year-old immigration attorney was “not my candidate.” These were more moderate voters, Soto explained when I joined him on his route in February. That response was often code for their discomfort with Cisneros’ pro-choice stance. “Abortion issues — that’s one of the biggest ones in Texas,” Soto said.
Cisneros allies say that some South Texas voters voiced concern about her defense of abortion rights in the lead-up to the first round of her primary contest with Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent, is the last anti-abortion rights Democrat in the House, a position that’s suited his Catholic-heavy district along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But that was before the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 high court decision that established abortion rights. Now, “Cuellar is feeling the pressure on this,” asserts Dyana Limon-Mercado, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. One telling anecdote: A new pro-Cuellar television ad softens the incumbent’s stance. “With women’s rights under attack from extremists, Democrat Henry Cuellar has made it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion,” the voice-over says.
Cuellar and Cisneros face one another in a Democratic primary runoff election for Texas’s 28th congressional district on Tuesday night, a rematch of the March primary in which Cisneros trailed Cuellar by less than 2 percent of the vote. Ever since news broke earlier this month of Roe’s approaching doom, Democrats have hoped the impending rollback of reproductive rights will drive a wave of pro-choice voters to the polls in the midterm elections, when their congressional majorities are on the line. The south Texas runoff — in which an avidly pro-choice challenger is emphasizing the issue as she runs against an anti-abortion rights incumbent — is perhaps the best indicator of that strategy’s potential that Democrats will get before November.
Roe’s reversal, expected to be issued by high court this summer, would trigger limits on abortion in more than half of all states. That rollback would impose a total abortion ban in Texas, which passed one of the nation’s most extreme anti-abortion laws last May. When House Democrats took up legislation to codify Roe in response to Texas’s new law in September, Cuellar was the only member of his caucus to vote against it, though he attempted to give nuance to his position after the SCOTUS draft came to light. “As a Catholic, I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban,” he said in a statement. “There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.”
Cisneros, meanwhile, has been unreservedly pro-choice ever since she first challenged Cuellar in 2020, highlighting the issue as one of many that distinguished her from the centrist incumbent. But Cisneros has sought to make abortion the issue in the campaign’s final weeks, running her own television ads that lambast Cuellar for his vote “against a woman’s right to make her own decisions.” National Democrats, eager to prove the issue’s salience for the upcoming midterm elections, have joined Cisneros’ mission. EMILY’s List, a political organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women, spent half a million dollars on television advertisements to boost Cisneros’ chances. Justice Democrats, the left-wing political organization that recruited Cisneros to run, also spent six figures on mailers and digital advertisements that draw attention to Cuellar’s record on reproductive rights.
The push has complicated matters for prominent Democrats who endorsed Cuellar, many of whom have led the party’s swift condemnation of the SCOTUS draft and its repercussions. In the days following the leak, Cisneros called upon Democratic leaders to withdraw any endorsements of Cuellar. None did. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who called the draft “an abomination” and among the “most damaging decisions in modern history,” recorded get-out-the-vote robocalls for the incumbent in the campaign’s final days.
Texas’ 28th congressional district, a narrow strip that runs from San Antonio down to the U.S.-Mexico border, is more socially conservative than other seats with such long-serving Democratic incumbents. Some local Democrats maintain abortion remains a complicated issue in a district where the population is roughly 90 percent Catholic in some areas. A Democratic state senator from the region, for example, was the only one in the Texas statehouse to support the state’s new draconian abortion law. “It’s been very conservatively Catholic, and we’re in our own little bubble when it comes to that,” says Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Democratic Party in Webb County, which sits along the border.
But it would be a mistake to equate Catholic’s dominance with an anti-abortion stance, Bruni cautions. “There are many who may be personally anti-abortion, but they think they don’t have the right to tell other women what to do,” she says. Bruni also doubts the issue ranks all that high for many voters, who she says are far more concerned about the economy and health care. “There’s a niche of voters whose attention has been drawn to it,” she says, “but I don’t know if it’s going to be a salient factor.”
Any concrete indications will have to wait for the final vote tallies on Tuesday night. Turnout for the March 1 primary didn’t even reach 10 percent in most counties, and those who remember to show up for a runoff is expected to be even lower. Progressives expect that may work to Cisneros’ advantage. “The Supreme Court just gave voters a strong reason to show up in a standalone primary,” says Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who endorsed Cisneros during her first run against Cuellar. “People who are showing up to vote in this race know exactly what they’re doing.”
Soto, the Cisneros volunteer, has knocked at least a hundred doors per day in campaign’s final stretch. He’s focused his efforts on San Antonians who voted for Cisneros in March, hopeful they can be convinced to show up for her one more time. In his travels, Soto’s seen strong enthusiasm from women, some who promise to bring their daughters or friends along to vote. “For these women, it’s a do-or-die situation,” Soto says. “Cuellar has put what he’s for out there.”