Justice Democrats, the progressive organization that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset campaign, has set up a fund to recruit a primary challenger against Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th Congressional District.
The announcement is the first target from the organization after Ocasio-Cortez threw her weight behind a Justice Democrats–backed campaign to recruit progressive candidates to run against incumbent moderate Democrats ahead of the 2020 election cycle.
“Despite representing one of the safest Democratic districts in the country, he’s been an ally of the Republican Party and Donald Trump in Congress,” Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News of Cuellar over a phone call. “He has an A rating from the NRA and he’s voted against protecting DACA recipients,” she added.
The organization cites Cuellar’s 68.8% record for voting in line with the president’s position as a prime reason to primary a Democrat in a safe blue district.
“Progressives have an opportunity to strategically primary the most vile Democrats in their ranks, and Henry Cuellar should top the list,” Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, said in a statement.
“We want to change the makeup of the Democratic Party and we know that primaries are healthy for the party,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told BuzzFeed News over a phone call. “What we want to know is if Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer think Cuellar’s a real Democrat. Do we really want someone like that in the party?”
“We feel that the congressman’s voting record is in line with the district,” Colin Strother, a Cuellar campaign strategist, told BuzzFeed News over a late afternoon phone call. "We have some people that say he’s not liberal enough and then we have some blue dogs that say he’s not conservative enough because of his friendship with Nancy Pelosi. At the end of the day, our focus is on how his votes impact the district. We understand that some people that aren't from the district might have a problem with that."
"Ours is a party that celebrates diversity," Strother added. "It can’t stop at skin color and religiosity, it has to include the diversity of thought. We can’t say we’re the party of diversity if we’re throwing everyone out that doesn’t think the same way."
Progressive activists saw their best successes in deep blue districts during the 2018 cycle, with candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley prevailing in primaries over incumbents. Politico reported that Ocasio-Cortez has roiled members of her own party after backing the campaign to recruit primary challengers last year, but Shahid said she isn’t directly involved in the campaign to recruit a challenger to run against Cuellar.