In a Texas Democratic primary between an anti-abortion Democrat whose home and office were raided by the FBI and a young, progressive, pro-choice woman, top House Democrats—including Speaker Nancy Pelosi—are going with the former.
Even after it became clear this week that the Supreme Court is apparently planning to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a longtime Democratic congressman from Texas’ 28th Congressional District, won a plurality of support in the March primary over Jessica Cisneros, a progressive 28-year-old immigration lawyer whom Cuellar narrowly defeated in 2020. They’ll face each other in a runoff election on May 24 to decide the Democratic nominee, which Democrats view as key to their slim chances of maintaining a House majority next year.
The conservative Cuellar is avowedly anti-choice, one of the few Democrats left in the House who fits that description. Last year, he was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would protect abortion access as a matter of federal law and was passed after Texas banned abortion after six weeks.
“It’s called conscience: I am a Catholic, and I do believe in right to life, and it’s just a conscience,” Cuellar told reporters in October. “Sometimes people vote because of [politics], they think just because [it’s a] Democratic or Republican issue, for me it’s just a matter of conscience.”
Cuellar has been endorsed by top House Democrats including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, as well as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose campaign arm funded attacks on Cisneros in 2020. Pelosi’s political action committee gave Cuellar $4,000 in December, according to FEC records,
Cisneros, on the other hand, is vehemently pro-choice, and has been endorsed by reproductive rights advocacy groups such as NARAL and EMILY’s List, as well as progressive politicians such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cisneros slammed Cuellar after his vote last year.
“Once again, Henry Cuellar has refused to stand up for South Texans’ reproductive freedom and the constitutional right to abortion care,” Cisneros said in a statement to the Texas Tribune. “Even after our state’s Republican leaders just passed the country’s most extreme ban—ending almost all abortion access in Texas with no exceptions after 6 weeks—our Congressman refuses to defend us and our reproductive rights.”
Cuellar has also been plagued by questions about his integrity. In January, the FBI raided his home and office in connection with an investigation into ties between Azerbaijan and U.S. companies and groups. Records related to Cuellar and his wife were subpoenaed, ABC News reported in January, but his lawyer told Fox News last month that Cuellar is not the target of the investigation.
But even with the FBI raid and his almost total opposition to abortion rights, Cuellar is continuing to receive enthusiastic support from the House Democratic leadership. Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, who wields major influence in national Democratic politics, is set to campaign for Cuellar in a get-out-the-vote event on Wednesday in San Antonio.
Reached for comment Tuesday, a Clyburn spokesperson told VICE News that Clyburn is “still planning to be with Rep. Cuellar tomorrow.”
Pelosi, who campaigned for Cuellar in the final days of the 2020 primary, reaffirmed her support for the Texas congressman in March after Cisneros forced Cuellar to a runoff.
“I support my incumbents,” Pelosi said during a press conference in Austin on the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act’s passage. “I support every one of them, from right to left. That is what I do.” (Pelosi’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News on Tuesday.)
Pelosi’s majority is likely to narrow even before November, when polls show the Democrats are likely to lose control of Congress. On Tuesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul picked U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado as her lieutenant governor, meaning two Democratic seats will be vacant. Another, in a district neighboring Cuellar’s in Texas, could potentially flip to the GOP.
Though the abortion bill Cuellar voted against ultimately passed the House, it failed to advance in the Senate in February because some Senate Democrats refused to break the filibuster. (In the leaked draft of his opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the court should “heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”)
But in the wake of the leak of the draft opinion, Democrats—despite holding both chambers of Congress and the presidency right now—are pitching their majorities as the only way to protect abortion access.
“It’s not about filibuster, size of the court, or what the Senate hasn’t passed. It’s about Republicans, not us,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, tweeted Tuesday. “We can save our freedoms. But, it’s November, stupid.”
President Joe Biden echoed this sentiment in a statement on the leak.
"If the Court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation's elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman's right to choose," said Biden, who supported a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade early in his career and repeatedly voted to ban federal funding for abortions before reversing his position as president.
“And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials in November.”
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