jessica cisneros
Jessica Cisneros for Congress
Super Tuesday

This 26-Year-Old Is Poised to Oust an Anti-Abortion, Pro-Gun Democrat

In some ways, Jessica Cisneros has already won.

Democratic congressional hopeful Jessica Cisneros knows her opponent, incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), in a way that few candidates ever get to: she once worked for him.

In 2014, Cisneros, then 21 years old and attending the University of Texas at Austin, was Cuellar’s intern in Washington D.C., where she worked 9 to 5 every day in his office for several months. Years later, the experience not only contributed to her decision to run, she said it also served as a guide for how not to lead.


“It took me having to go to Washington to actually find out where my congressman stands on so many issues, besides [just] policy,” she said. “What stuck with me the most was the fact that I just didn't see [him] meeting with people that look like me.”

Cisneros, now 26, has spent the eight months since she announced her candidacy knocking on doors across South Texas trying to convince residents that she’ll do more for them in Congress than Cuellar has in his 15 years in office. Her primary challenge against Cuellar—an anti-abortion Democrat with an A rating from the NRA—has received national attention as progressives aim to unseat one of the most conservative members of their party. Many progressives consider this primary to be the most important congressional election taking place this cycle, and certainly the most important congressional primary taking place on Super Tuesday. The Wall Street Journal has called the race “the first significant challenge to a House incumbent in the 2020 cycle.”

Jessica Cisneros

Image courtesy of Jessica Cisneros for Congress

Cisneros has won big-name endorsements from Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and even celebrities outside of Congress like actress Susan Sarandon and singer Ezra Koenig. This month, a coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union, Working Families Party, the Communication Workers of America, and the Texas Organizing Project committed their support. Meanwhile, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and even the Koch network’s LIBRE Initiative Action have opted to endorse Cuellar.


Cisneros calls herself “Trump’s worst nightmare” and Cuellar, who voted with Trump 69 percent of the time during the 115th Congressional term, “Trump’s favorite Democrat.” (Rep. Henry Cuellar did not respond to VICE’s request for comment.) She supports progressive initiatives like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and raising the minimum wage.

Most progressives support immigration reform, but for Cisneros the issue is crucial. For one, it’s her area of expertise. After graduating from the University of Texas School of Law, she became an immigration attorney representing people facing deportation while detained. “Under the Trump administration, it became clear that the impact that I wanted my advocacy to have in the courtroom just wasn't working anymore,” Cisneros said. “I kept running into these roadblocks. Judges [were] telling me, ‘The law isn't there yet. I want to help you, but I can't.’” That’s when she decided to run.

The majority of Texas’s 28th congressional district, where Cisneros was born and raised, runs along the border. There, 79 percent of residents are Latinx. Growing up, Cisneros, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, watched families crossing the Rio Grande outside of her window at school. Now, ending family separation and creating a path to citizenship for her “undocumented brothers and sisters” are key tenets of her platform. Her campaign, like the district she represents, is multilingual.

Jessica Cisneros

Image courtesy of Jessica Cisneros for Congress

Cisneros is one of many progressive women of color running across the country, and there have been plentiful comparisons between her and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the past few months, Vogue, Elle, Mother Jones, and Vice News have run headlines asking if Cisneros will be “the next AOC.”

“It’s an indicator that we need to do a better job of trying to help elect young Latina women to office,” Cisneros said. “The comparisons are drawn because there's not that many people that look like us in the halls of Congress.”

One non-negligible similarity, however, is that Cisneros, like Ocasio-Cortez, was recruited and backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive political action committee that also supported representatives Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib in their 2018 bids. Recognizing the importance of ousting Cuellar, Justice Democrats began campaigning in Texas 28 to recruit a challenger last year. The committee allows public nominations for congressional candidates to endorse; Cisneros was nominated by her high school teacher.

“We just ended up really, really aligning [with Cisneros],” said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. “She is someone who is from her community who is constantly centering poor and working people.”

If she ousts Cuellar, Cisneros will be the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress by two years. While Cuellar (who is 64) and his supporters have said that Cisneros doesn’t have enough experience to represent South Texas in Congress, Cisneros sees her age and life experience as an advantage.

“One of the most encouraging things about running is seeing how younger folks have responded to our race positioning someone that's not so far removed from themselves being outspoken and fighting for what they believe in,” she said. “Our district is very rural so there's a lot of houses that are far apart. [If] we have young volunteers, we can get them out there and they can knock on as many doors as possible,” she added, laughing.

Cuellar has not had a serious challenger in years, and voter turnout in the district is historically low. Rojas pointed out that the Democratic Party has an incumbency rate of nearly—but not quite—100 percent. The race between Cuellar and Cisneros has gotten so much attention in part because Cisneros has a real chance, and that’s new for Cuellar.

In that way, Cisneros has already won: The threat of her campaign is pushing Cuellar to rethink his conservative record, she said. In August, Cisneros pointed out that Cuellar had recently voted in favor of a $15 minimum wage, despite having never supported a minimum wage increase before she entered the race. In the current congressional session, he has voted with Trump only 10 percent of the time, compared to nearly 70 percent in the last session.

Cuellar, who has refused to debate Cisneros before voters head to the ballot box on Super Tuesday, disagrees. “If it rains,” he told Vice News last year “I hope she gets credit for that too.”