WASHINGTON — In 2014, Jessica Cisneros worked as an intern for Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, answering phones and handling constituent requests. This week, when Texans go to the polls on Super Tuesday, she’ll be on the ballot trying to unseat him.
Cisneros, now 26, is an immigration and human rights attorney. She’s running for Congress on a progressive platform including Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and immigration reform. She’s been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom are currently running for president.
Cuellar is the rare Democrat with a failing grade from Planned Parenthood and an A rating from the National Rifle Association. He endorsed George W. Bush and voted with President Donald Trump nearly 70% of the time during the first two years Trump was in office, leading progressive activists to dub him “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”
“It took me having to go to Washington to figure out how conservative he was,” Cisneros said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “I think about that experience a lot, because I get it when we go up to people's doors and all of a sudden we, you know, hit them with the facts and what the congressman's been up to, [and] many, many people don't know.”
Tuesday’s election represents not only a test for Cisneros and her progressive agenda, but also for Justice Democrats, the progressive group that helped skyrocket Ocasio-Cortez to her upset victory two years ago. In 2018, the group endorsed 79 candidates, seven of whom ultimately won their general elections. Of that group, just two (Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley) beat incumbent Democrats (former Reps. Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano, respectively) in primaries.
Cisneros was the first candidate Justice Democrats recruited and endorsed this cycle, and if she pulls off a victory this week, it will cement the organization as a serious player in the electoral landscape — or, if she loses, give fodder to the organization’s critics, who argue Ocasio-Cortez’s win was a fluke.
“Primary challengers rarely win, so it’s always a long shot,” Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “That’s why AOC and Ayanna 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.”
Cisneros’s endorsements from top progressive politicians and groups have forced her campaign to perform a delicate balancing act between national attention and focusing on local issues. But it’s also been an opportunity to talk about South Texas in a different way than it often has been during the Trump administration — which has focused largely on the president’s immigration policies, Cisneros said.
“You hear a lot about border communities, but you don't really hear from us,” she said. “This was an opportunity to actually portray South Texas in a positive light and an accurate light, right? And it's not so much that like, you know, an endorsement of that magnitude would resonate with [voters] here, because really their concerns are more about, ‘So what are you gonna do to help me and my family have health care? What are you going to do to help me and my family make ends meet?’”
The Cuellar campaign originally agreed to an interview for this story, but a spokesperson for the campaign said they wouldn’t answer any questions framed as responding to arguments the Cisneros campaign makes about Cuellar.
“We’re not allowing a 26-year-old young lady who’s never done anything question the character of a dedicated public servant,” Colin Strother, a spokesperson for the campaign, said in a phone call with BuzzFeed News, apparently referring to Cisneros. The campaign later canceled the interview within the hour it was set to happen “due to scheduling conflicts.”
Over the years, Cuellar has argued his moderate votes reflect the fact that he represents a more conservative district than many of his Democratic colleagues. (Though it’s not just his policy positions that have attracted the ire of more liberal groups. Notably, a former Cuellar staffer alleges she was fired from his office because she was pregnant. Cuellar denies the allegation and his staff has said they won’t discuss internal personnel matters.)
“If you look at my record here since I started here back in 2005, I’ve always been a centrist,” Cuellar told FiveThirtyEight in a 2017 interview. “If you want to use voting with the Democratic Party as a measure, you and I are going to be off completely because I was not sent to Washington to vote with the Democratic Party. I am a Democrat, but I don’t see my job as to vote with the Democratic Party. And I think any Democrat or Republican that votes [with] their party, then I think they’re doing a disservice to their constituents.”
Progressive pollster Sean McElwee said in an interview that Cuellar isn’t wrong: His district is a more moderate one. But, he argued, Cuellar’s constituents are not nearly as moderate as the Democrat himself.
“You have people like [Illinois Rep.] Lauren Underwood, people like [Virginia Rep.] Abigail Spanberger, who are taking much more consistently liberal views than Cuellar, despite the fact that they're in districts that are 20 points more favorable to Republicans than him,” he said. “So I think it's very hard for him to claim that his district can’t handle a sort of mainstream progressive member.”
Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headlined a fundraiser in the district for Cuellar, where she said she wanted to see a “resounding victory” for him. Just one day earlier, HuffPost reported that a super PAC founded and funded by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch had spent $34,000 in support of Cuellar.
“This is probably, you know, of the sort of early primaries, the top two or three chances … progressives have to unseat an incumbent,” McElwee told BuzzFeed News last week. “The extent to which Cuellar has angered even sort of more mainstream, even establishment organizations with his rampant misogyny, his fundamentally anti-science views of climate, and his Koch brothers–style economic policies is, I mean, almost genuinely impressive.”
And Cisneros has indeed attracted significant endorsements from more mainstream Democratic organizations that rarely endorse against sitting Democrats, including Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List. Notably, she’s racked up those endorsements despite a blacklist imposed last year by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which announced it would no longer work with any group that works with candidates challenging Democratic incumbents.
As of last month, Cisneros had also raised nearly $1 million, a significant chunk of change for any primary challenger. Cuellar, for his part, has raised about $1.7 million.
“Henry Cuellar is also raising and spending way more money than Joe Crowley or Mike Capuano ever did, so it's definitely a much tougher battle, because there's no element of surprise anymore,” Shahid, of Justice Democrats, said. “I think Jessica has a really good shot and I think she's gonna win. [But] the other side is also spending … Chamber of Commerce, the Koch family, you know, the private prison lobbyists dumping tons of money into this race to protect Trump’s favorite Democrat — more of a Republican if you look at his donors.”
But Cisneros said she isn’t really feeling the pressure.
“I don't really see it as pressure,” she said. “I'm actually having fun while doing all of this. This has been the first time in over a decade that we have another choice on the ballot. It's not stressful, because at the end of the day, if anybody needs to be afraid of what the results are going to look like, it's not us, it's Congressman Cuellar.”