SAN ANTONIO (Nexstar) — A Democratic congressional race in South Texas is garnering national attention, as the Roe v. Wade leaked opinion shakes up a tight runoff election.
Nine-term Congressman Henry Cuellar of Laredo’s well-known opposition to abortion is coming under fire by progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, his former intern.
The incumbent is the sole Democrat who voted against codifying Roe v. Wade, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which failed in Congress at the end of February.
Cisneros, a young progressive backed by the likes of Sen. Bernie Senators of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has always criticized her opponent’s record on abortion rights.
But in the final weeks before the runoff election, a bombshell POLITICO report of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade came out, reigniting the nation’s focus on one of the most divisive topics: abortion.
“I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” Cisneros said in a Tuesday statement.
Despite these calls, Cuellar was joined by the third-ranking House Democrat in San Antonio for a pre-planned campaign rally on a hot Wednesday evening.
Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina told reporters Democrats are a “big tent party,” and there shouldn’t be a “litmus test in the Democratic Party.”
“I would ask anybody, which is more important? To have a pro-life Democrat or to have an anti-abortion Republican? Just come November, that could very well be the choice in this district,” Clyburn said.
KXAN asked Clyburn if he meant he thought that would be the scenario if Cisneros won the runoff and became the Democratic nominee. He said no.
“I don’t know what the district looks like anymore. But I know what the district was like the last time he ran. And if it looks anything like it was the last time he ran,” Clyburn said. “In fact, the national people rate this a toss up.”
Julia Manchester, a campaign reporter for The Hill, said with the risk of losing the House during the November midterms elections, she guesses this isn’t a seat Democrats want to risk.
“They’re going to back incumbents. They’re going to lean on those incumbents and support them. So I think there’s that factor. But there’s also a question of can a progressive be successful in this district,” she said.
Cuellar did not mention abortion during his stump speech to the crowd of roughly 80 people. Although, he touted enjoyed support from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, despite their differences.
The Laredo congressman told the crowd of what those leaders are in charge of doing, as a reminder of the power he can harness for Texas by being in their good graces.
He told them about the work he and Clyburn did reaching across the aisle to win Republican votes in the Infrastructure Deal, which Texas will receive billions of to repair infrastructure and create jobs.
“When I was asking to be in appropriations, Nancy Pelosi could have picked anybody she could. We know she’s very progressive. I’m a little bit more moderate than she is,” Cuellar said. “But she decided to pick me … why? Because they knew I could get the job done.”
Manchester said the leaked draft opinion “threw a huge wrench” into the runoff election between Cuellar and Cisneros.
Outside of the San Antonio event, a small group of protesters stood outside with signs that read “codify Roe v. Wade.”
“This obviously allows Jessica Cisneros to really pressure him on this issue to say, ‘look, do you think Roe v. Wade should be overturned?” Manchester said. “And the congressman said in the statement that he does not think there should be an outright ban on abortion. But still a very fine line to walk.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has endorsed Cisneros, called out Cuellar in a statement.
“Henry Cuellar is on the wrong side of every issue. He holds an A rating from the NRA, he voted with Donald Trump 69% of the time during Trump’s first two years in office. He even voted to build Trump’s stupid wall,” Warren said.
At his Wednesday rally, Cuellar described his differences as strengths.
“When it comes to certain issues, I will look at the district to decide. I don’t think you sent me to Washington to make political statements,” he said.
It’s a seat Republicans are looking to in obtaining their goals of a red tidal wave come November. South Texas, a historic Democratic stronghold, is the ultimate battleground for the GOP in Texas.
Alex Kuehler, a spokesperson for the RNC Southwest, has talked about counties like Zapata County, which although isn’t in Cuellar’s district, is in the greater part of South Texas. It flipped red in the 2020 presidential election for the first time in a century.
“We see an opportunity, which is why we’ve put three RNC Hispanic community centers down in that area,” Kuehler said. “One in Laredo, one in McAllen, and then we’ve also got one in San Antonio.”
He said the GOP is vying for the 28th district of Texas regardless of if the nominee is a moderate incumbent or a fresh progressive, but specifically highlighted characteristics of Cisneros he doesn’t think would play well in that race.
“Jessica Cisneros, based on the things that she has said and based on her platform, is an extreme left-wing liberal, and she doesn’t fit that district,” he said.
KXAN reached out to the Cisneros campaign but did not hear back in time for this story.
Manchester said this race will likely be the first test of how the possiblity of post-Roe nation affects elections.
“I think everyone will be paying very close attention to this race in particular, because it could tell us about what to expect going forward on the issue of abortion,” she said.