WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar fended off a primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney, in Texas’s 28th district, in a defeat for the progressive movement.
The Super Tuesday primary was tight; Decision Desk HQ ultimately called the race with Cuellar leading Cisneros, 52% to 48%.
Cisneros officially conceded Wednesday morning, saying in a statement, “This is just the beginning. The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear — and our movement was victorious in proving we're within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas.”
Cisneros was backed by Justice Democrats, the progressive group that helped propel Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to victory two years ago. She was the first candidate the group recruited and endorsed this cycle.
Cuellar is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in the House and had held the seat since 2005. He also maintains an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and Cisneros and her allies coined him “Trump’s favorite Democrat” after Cuellar voted with the president nearly 70% of the time during Trump’s first two years in office.
Cisneros worked as an intern in Cuellar’s office in 2014 before deciding to launch a campaign to unseat him last summer.
Cisneros spoke Tuesday night before the race was officially called, telling supporters, “I think one thing is clear, that our movement was victorious tonight... That’s because this fight has always been about an opportunity to prove how one of us, a brown girl from our community, with her whole community behind her, could take on an entire machine.”
Ahead of a planned interview with Cuellar last week, Colin Strother, a spokesperson for the campaign, said Cuellar would not answer any questions framed as responses to attacks Cisneros made on him during the primary.
“We’re not allowing a 26-year-old young lady who’s never done anything question the character of a dedicated public servant,” Strother said. (The campaign then canceled the interview half an hour before it was supposed to happen.)
In addition to Justice Democrats, Cisneros had the support of Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“Primary challengers rarely win, so it’s always a long shot,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid told BuzzFeed News last week. “That’s why AOC and [Rep.] Ayanna [Pressley] winning was a big deal. But I think we’ve run a really great campaign and I think [Cisneros] can win. The world completely changed after AOC’s victory.”
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to the district to fundraise for Cuellar, and a PAC founded and funded by the libertarian super-donor Charles Koch spent $34,000 in support of Cuellar in the last days of the race.
Cuellar’s victory represents a disappointing loss for the progressive movement. While the district is a fairly safe Democratic seat, it’s more conservative than Ocasio-Cortez’s New York seat. Cisneros supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and progressive immigration reform.
“[Primary challengers are] outspent, and by all the traditional metrics we're not quote-unquote supposed to win,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters Monday evening. “So if she's able to pull this off tomorrow, I think it will be profoundly energizing.”
Cisneros would have the youngest woman ever to serve in the House, Ocasio-Cortez noted. “I, for one, could not think of a better way to be the shortest-lived youngest woman in Congress, and I would absolutely be thrilled to hand that off to her tomorrow,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez also said this week she doesn’t think Cisneros’s loss is bad news for other primary challengers across the country.
“Each one of these races come down to such individual characteristics. It's about the incumbent, it's about the challenger, and it's about the actual community,” she said. “Jessica Cisneros is very different from Marie Newman [in Illinois], is very different from a Georgette Gomez [in California], for example, but that they all fight for the same values, but all of these are kind of down to the individual communities that they're advocating for and how they do it.”
Cisneros told BuzzFeed News last week that winning wasn’t her only metric of victory and that she’s proud to have led a team mostly made up of women and people under 30.
“For us, yes, obviously the victory is going to be winning on March 3, but I think the larger victory is training ourselves here in South Texas to organize,” she said. “For me, the victory is going to be that we've invested in the infrastructure, and to build a movement down here in South Texas, and that it's not just going to rally around candidates but around issues."