Watch CBS News

Progressive challengers and an FBI raid raise obstacles to Texas Democrat's reelection bid

Race heats up in Texas congressional district
Early voting underway in Texas' 28th congressional district 07:16

Congressman Henry Cuellar is fighting for his political life in the upcoming Texas Democratic primary, hoping to prevail in the rematch against progressive immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, a former intern for his office who came within 3,000 votes of beating him in 2020. 

File photos of Rep. Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros Separate photos by Getty Images

There's another candidate in the race for the 28th Congressional District, too, educator Tannya Benavides. And another development could play a role in the primary: in late January, the FBI raided Cuellar's campaign office, as part of an investigation related to Azerbaijan and several U.S. businessmen. Cuellar, who declined to speak to CBS News for this report, said at the time that he expected the probe would  "prove no wrongdoing." 

Early voting is underway for the March 1 Democratic primary.

Although South Texas proved friendlier to Republicans in 2020, the 28th District — which snakes from San Antonio to Laredo and through more rural areas including Jim Hogg and Duval County — was redrawn for 2022 in a way that gives a slight edge to Democrats. The new district is predominantly Hispanic and covers more area than the state of New Jersey. 

South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley are being targeted by Texas Democrats, after seeing Republicans make gains in that region in 2020 and one state representative in the area switch parties in November 2021.

This primary is an early test of the appeal of the progressive candidates challenging moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats, like Cuellar, in competitive districts that lean Democratic. Cisneros has the backing of Justice Democrats, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who traveled to San Antonio last week to rally for Cisernos and Greg Casar, who is running for Congress in Texas' 35th District. 

Texas has a runoff system for its primaries, so the winner will have to clear 50% support to win the nomination outright. Otherwise the top two vote getters will move forward to a runoff election on May 24.

Cuellar, running for his 10th term, is among the most conservative House Democrats in the caucus. He has worked with Republicans to boost security at the border and is unapologetically anti-abortion. One of his first public appearances after the FBI raid was to receive a "Legislator of the Year" award from the "Democrats for Life" organization. 

His campaign appeared to have been caught off guard by Cisneros in 2020, but it has ramped up this time, with more door-knocking, more early mailers, T.V. and digital ads.

Cuellar's campaign says these efforts had already been undertaken before the FBI investigation. A federal grand jury in Washington D.C. is investigating. 

Since the raid, Cuellar has kept a low profile but said he's cooperating with the investigation and confirmed that he's still running for reelection.

His campaign dismissed the impact of FBI probe on the race as "minimal," given Cuellar's standing in the district, and what he's been able to get done for the district through his role on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

"We are 100% confident it's going to show there's been no wrongdoing. We've actually gotten a lot of support and people almost doubling down their support because they know him, he's been a fixture in the community for a long time," said a member of Cuellar's team. 

Laredo is the base of Cuellar's support — where other family members are also active in public service. His brother is the sheriff of Webb County and his sister is the county's former tax assessor-collector.

At a campaign event for gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke in Laredo, voters were split on Cuellar but didn't count the FBI probe as a strike against him. 

"Politicians are forced to raise all of this money continuously in order to support their offices, their travel, the work that they do," said Melissa Cigarroa, a Cuellar supporter. She added, "It doesn't surprise me that sometimes people can take advantage of that-- but you want someone who can do their job, and he's done so good for Laredo."

Laredo native Joey Medina isn't surprised by the investigation. 

"I just follow the candidates who don't accept political contributions from companies and high donors," he said.

Medina's family voted for Cuellar in 2020, while he alone voted for Cisneros. He said they're leaning toward Cisneros this year because they see how the rising costs of prescription drugs are impacting his battle with diabetes. 

"It's forced people to really think about who they're supporting much earlier in the primary cycle," Cisneros said about the FBI raid after a canvass kick-off in Starr County. "[The raid] has really cemented what we've said from day one, that we are the best choice. People do not want someone who has been corrupted by corporate PAC money."

Cisneros is banking on the rise in her name identification from her last run, as well as additions of left-leaning southeast San Antonio to the district during redistricting, to help her beat Cuellar this time. 

From January 1 to February 9 Cisneros outraised Cuellar by more than $560,000, though Cuellar still has a $860,000 advantage in cash on hand. 

Cisneros says she's told her team to "not get distracted" by the FBI raid, and to focus on painting Cuellar as part of a broken "status quo," but Cisneros does think the raid might help her campaign, particularly with newer voters added through redistricting.

"It's not a good first impression for a lot of voters that the incumbent has been subjected to an FBI raid so close to the election," she said. "If he really was delivering as he said he was, there's no reason why he should have come 2,700 votes away from almost losing to a 26-year-old candidate with no name-ID in the district."

Cisneros, who interned for Cuellar in 2014, has made Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and raising the minimum wage the central ideas of her campaign, as well as attacking Cuellar on his anti-abortion stance. 

Cuellar's campaign argues that nominating Cisneros would heighten the risk that the district will fall under Republican control. Border counties make up about two-thirds of the district, and immigration enforcement resonates with its constituents. 

Cuellar has voted twice with Republicans on bills that fund the border wall, though he argued he carved out exceptions for areas of his district. One of his campaign ads hits Cisneros on her stances on immigration, warning she'd leave the district with "open borders, leaving us less safe."

After gains for the party in South Texas in 2020, Republicans think this district is in play, even though its political terrain has shifted slightly to the left during redistricting. Rural Zapata County, which is in the district, flipped from voting for Hillary Clinton by 33 points in 2016 to voting for Trump by about 6 points in 2020. Cuellar won the county by more than 30 points in 2020. 

There are seven Republican congressional candidates for this district after only one, Sandra Whitten, ran against Cuellar in 2020. The National Republican Congressional Committee has signaled it will compete in this district, as well as the neighboring Texas' 15th District, an open seat left by Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez.

The Republican National Committee has made a multi-million dollar investment into "RNC Community Centers" geared towards minority communities. Three are in South Texas, including one in San Antonio and one in Laredo.

"Henry and I are pretty close friends. He does a lot of good for Laredo, he's in charge of the border. I hope he survives his primary," said Bill Young, the former Webb County Republican Chair, at a RNC Community Center event. "But– it's going to be a battle for him in the primary and in the general."

Republican candidate and businessman Ed Cabrera said a recent internal poll from his campaign conducted after the FBI raid has Cisneros up 7 points on Cuellar.

Benavides noted Republicans have been targeting rural counties.

"There's been so much that's happened since 2020 that we will, as a Democratic party, be judged by," Benavides told CBS News during an event in Zapata County. "They're looking at it as a window of opportunity. So I'm also going to be where the Republican party is at."

New voting laws passed by Texas' Republican legislature, particularly the restrictions on unsolicited mail ballot applications, the reduced polling place locations and new voter ID requirements, may also have an impact that may be more evident in the outcome of the general election but are already making a difference. Webb County Democratic Chair Sylvia Bruni said she was told 20% of mail ballot applicants in the county have been rejected.

"Democrats tend to like the vote by mail ballot. It was very intended, very targeted for the Democratic voter," Bruni said about the new voting laws. 

Ocasio-Cortez, in remarks at a South Texas campaign rally last weekend for Cisneros and Casar, tied Cuellar to moderate House Democrats who pushed to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill without the Build Back Better social spending plan. 

Progressives see Democratic opposition to Build Back Better from centrist members as a potent campaign issue.

"There has been a series of lessons this last year on Democrats who get elected and don't actually uphold the commitments associated with supporting the president's agenda," said Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the progressive Indivisible Group, which is spending $60,000 on mailers, ads and direct voter contact in the district.

"When I'm talking to people and they're saying, 'I'm upset about [Kyrsten] Sinema,' well, if you're upset about whether Democrats have the cohesion to move together on a bold agenda, there is action to take right now. And it is races like Representative Cuellar's," she added. 

Early voting in the state runs from February 14 to February 25. The last day to apply for a mail ballot is February 18.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.