Rep. Henry Cuellar, an eight-term congressman representing a heavily Democratic and Latino district in South Texas, has likely long believed he has job security. But as the Democratic Party has moved further to the left, Cuellar, a moderate, has faced increasing opposition, often irking the progressive Left on issues like environmentalism and immigration.
But it’s his position on abortion that could sink him in the upcoming primary election. Cuellar has received intense scrutiny from his fellow partisans since the leak of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization draft opinion. Last week, an anonymous senior Democrat told Newsweek that “Henry’s been against a woman’s right to choose for a long time, and that may finally catch up with him.” Cuellar, who has been called “the last Democrat in the House opposed to abortion rights,” says he opposes abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. In a party that views any restriction on abortion as an affront to women’s rights, that makes him vulnerable.
So the Left is mobilizing to take his seat. Cuellar’s challenger in the May 24 primary is one of his former interns, progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, who ran against him in 2020 and was narrowly defeated. Cisneros, who is running unapologetically in favor of abortion rights, has gained a high level of institutional support from the Left, including from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as a surprise endorsement Thursday from Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal.
In making her endorsement, Jayapal made abortion a central issue: “At a time when our reproductive freedoms are under attack by an extremist Supreme Court, we must elect pro-choice candidates that will fight to make sure abortion remains the law of the land. Jessica Cisneros embodies the kind of progressive we need in Congress.”
Cuellar’s views on abortion reveal the growing partisan gulf on the issue. While Cuellar is certainly the most pro-life Democrat remaining in the House, were he a Republican, he would likely be considered pro-choice. In the 115th Congress, National Right to Life gave Cuellar a score of 37 percent, lower than the vast majority of Republicans but higher than all but two Democrats, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, both of whom lost reelection in 2020. Cuellar was the only Democrat in the House who opposed a bill that would have repealed state-level pro-life laws. On the other hand, he also voted to not take up a bill that would have banned taxpayer-funded abortion.
Cuellar is himself moving to the left on abortion. For the 117th Congress, National Right to Life has thus far given him a score of 0 percent. Cuellar has been running ads emphasizing that he opposes a ban on abortion. That move away from a pro-life position is hardly unprecedented within the Democratic Party. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania still describes himself as pro-life even though he voted last week for a bill that would go well beyond codifying Roe v. Wade. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia opposed that proposal but expressed support for a bill to codify Roe.
Cuellar would not be the first Democrat to lose his seat over his abortion record. Lipinski lost his seat in 2020 over his stance on abortion. He had served on the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus and frequently voted pro-life. Before 2018, Lipinski had not faced a serious primary, but by the Trump years, that changed. His social conservatism turned him into a pariah, allowing progressive Marie Newman to hold him to a razor-thin victory for the Democratic nomination in 2018 and defeat him in 2020.
To be fair, abortion isn’t Cuellar’s only electoral weak point. Since 2020, he has been involved in several scandals. In January, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home as part of an investigation into his ties with Azerbaijan, the exact nature of which is still unknown. Perhaps a more damaging allegation is a sex discrimination lawsuit alleging that Cuellar fired a pregnant staffer in 2018 who had requested maternity leave and then instructed his staff to discredit her.
Cuellar appears to be an underdog against Cisneros, and his troubles would likely hinder him even if he makes it to November. Republicans, emboldened by President Joe Biden’s sagging approval numbers with Latino voters, hope to flip the district this year. Observers have noted that Cisneros may be too left-wing to win the general electorate.
Laredo’s man in Washington is doubtlessly more moderate than most of his D.C. compatriots, but his constituency of blue-collar, socially conservative Democrats is still very real. If their fellow partisans send them into the wilderness, there will be a constituency that Republicans can win over.