Progressives are cheering at the timing of FBI activity around the home and campaign office of US Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat they’ve been hoping to knock out of office for years. Details about what is actually at the heart of the FBI activity are unclear, but, whatever it is, they see it as a boon for their own candidate, Jessica Cisneros, who is running against him in Texas’s 28th Congressional District.
Cisneros, an immigration attorney who ran against Cuellar in 2020 and who lost to him by less than four points in the high-profile primary, is backed by Justice Democrats, the same group that propelled progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office. The Cisneros and Cuellar rematch is the first challenger race the group is involved with this cycle, and early voting starts in February.
“The fact that it is shrouded in mystery and Henry has not immediately come to the front line to defend himself screams major alarms for him, his candidacy, his race, his meaning,” Jen Ramos, a Cisneros endorser and member of the Texas State Democratic Executive Committee, told BuzzFeed News. “As long as [Cisneros] maintains focus and as long as she continues to advocate for the district, which she has a history of doing, then I think she could see victory come March 1.”
News of the FBI activity broke on Wednesday evening when local outlets reported it. On Thursday, ABC News first reported that the raid was related to a federal investigation of Azerbaijan and multiple US businesspeople, noting that it was not clear if Cuellar was the subject of the federal grand jury probe. Cuellar’s official office has remained vague on any details and did not answer the question when BuzzFeed News asked what the activity was pertaining to. A spokesperson passed along the single public statement on the matter they’ve made since: “Congressman Cuellar will fully cooperate in any investigation. He is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld.” Cuellar did not respond to a text sent directly to his cellphone by BuzzFeed News asking how he thought it would affect his run against Cisneros.
A longtime political adviser to Cuellar, Colin Strother, also did not immediately respond to a text and an email from BuzzFeed News about the FBI activity and whether the lawmaker was worried it would affect the primary. BuzzFeed News, in the same text and email that went without immediate response, asked why and when Strother had locked down his own Twitter account, which progressives had taken note of.
Nancy Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the speaker or her office are aware of what the FBI activity was regarding, or whether she had spoken with Cuellar.
“Rep. Cuellar is entitled to a presumption of innocence of any wrongdoing,” tweeted Julián Castro, a progressive former presidential candidate and Texan. He endorsed Cisneros in her last run. “But the working families of TX-28 who need a champion in Congress can’t risk losing a Democratic seat because the incumbent is under a cloud of suspicion.”
It’s clear on Cisneros’s end that her campaign saw it as an opening. "We are aware of the news regarding Congressman Cuellar and the active FBI investigation. We are closely watching as this develops. In the meantime, we are focused on our campaign to deliver change to South Texas families and will not be making any additional comments at this time," Cisneros said in a statement that she tweeted. It was preceded by a cheeky tweet noting that she had "[b]een getting a lot of new followers tonight!" The Washington Post reported that her campaign also sent out a fundraising email related to the situation. (Cisneros did not respond to texts sent to her phone asking if she would do a phone interview on the rematch.)
Even before this week’s events, progressives were seeing this as a more competitive race than the last cycle and were planning to build on the momentum Cisneros built then.
“Jessica would have probably won her race if she’d just had like one more month to build her name recognition. That’s the biggest challenge for first-time candidates is that so many people don’t know their name,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News, speaking of the 2020 cycle. “This time around Jessica has way more name recognition.”
Shahid added, “It took Cori Bush two times to win, it took Marie Newman two times to win, and I think Jessica can do that this time as well.”
The Laredo-area district, a largely rural border area that struggles with rampant poverty, extends up to San Antonio. After redistricting, it has moved to the left, but in 2020, Democrats were bewildered when the reliable stronghold of south Texas shifted toward Donald Trump in the presidential race, a troubling sign about the party’s ability to continue to appeal to Latino voters.
Cuellar, a nine-term Democrat, is often on the conservative end of the Democratic spectrum in Congress. He has built a reputation of being pro–border security and an ally to law enforcement, often chastising the Democratic party for being too progressive. He was the only Democrat to vote against a bill aimed at protecting access to abortion last year passed by the House, in the context of abortion rights being under threat in the country and, specifically, Texas. On Friday, Cisneros and allies were attacking Cuellar for making an apparent appearance via Zoom at an anti-abortion event; his office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from BuzzFeed News to verify that he had done so.