Leadership’s support for Cuellar shows “cognitive dissonance” between Democrats’ words and their actions, said primary challenger Jessica Cisneros.
WHEN POLITICO PUBLISHED the draft Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, top Democratic leaders were quick to condemn it. In a joint statement released Monday night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the draft “an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history.” On Tuesday morning, President Joe Biden called on states to protect the right to abortion and on voters to elect pro-choice Democrats in upcoming contests. Later that day, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., tweeted: “For 49 years, women have had the constitutional right to make choices about their body. The whole notion of politicians controlling those decisions is beyond the pale. It ought to be alarming to us.”
But on Wednesday, Clyburn hosted a get-out-the-vote rally with the party’s last remaining House member to oppose abortion rights, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. On May 24, Cuellar will face a runoff in his second primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros, who supports reproductive rights and lost to Cuellar by less than 4 percentage points in the 2020 primary for Texas’s 28th Congressional District. Cisneros came within 2 points of Cuellar’s votes in the March Democratic primary, forcing the runoff.
“We’re watching the erosion of our fundamental freedoms in this country. This isn’t a drill,” Cisneros told The Intercept. “Urgency is important, and Democrats need to pull out all the stops to fight for us.”
“I do not agree with Henry Cuellar on everything,” Clyburn said at Wednesday’s rally, according to Texas Monthly’s Jack Herrera. “We need to sit down with people who we do not agree with and try to find common ground, to do what is necessary to move this country forward.”
Clyburn is not alone among party leadership in endorsing the anti-abortion incumbent. Pelosi; Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. — all of whom profess support for abortion access — are backing Cuellar. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-V.T., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and New York Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, for their part, back Cisneros.
Party leadership’s support for Cuellar “points out the cognitive dissonance that’s going on right now,” Cisneros said. “Democratic leadership is saying one thing, the actions are showing another by supporting the last anti-choice Democrat in Congress, which is Henry Cuellar.” Cuellar did not provide comment by the time of publication.
In September, Cuellar was the only Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would strengthen access to abortion and prohibit states from singling out or impeding access to abortion services. Despite his opposition, it passed the House by seven votes before failing by two in the Senate. Sens. Warren; Sanders; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; and Ed Markey, D-Mass., called Tuesday to abolish the filibuster in order to pass the bill or another measure to codify the right to abortion in federal law.
“With the House majority on the line,” Cisneros said, “Henry Cuellar could be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and so many other fundamental freedoms in this country. And we just can’t afford to take that risk.”
While Cisneros had outraised Cuellar by half a million dollars as of the end of March — with $3.2 million in contributions to Cuellar’s $2.7 million — Cuellar’s campaign has also gotten a major boost from two political action committees for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. The group’s affiliated PAC United Democracy Project spent more than $330,000 last month on ads attacking Cisneros. And the fledgling AIPAC PAC, which endorsed Cuellar in March, has spent more than $165,000 in support of his campaign since January. Along with the group Democratic Majority for Israel, AIPAC has been behind millions more in spending to attack several progressive candidates.
The progressive Israel foreign policy group J Street, which is backing Cisneros, has spent $100,000 on the race so far. Justice Democrats, Emily’s List, NARAL, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and Working Families Party all endorsed Cisneros. Groups including WFP, Justice Democrats, NARAL, the Communication Workers of America, Texas Organizing Project, and Service Employees International Union have spent at least $2 million in support of Cisneros and opposing Cuellar. At the end of last quarter, Cuellar’s campaign had $1.4 million cash on hand to Cisneros’s $1 million.
Cisneros said her team was used to outside spending and was focused on continuing to build grassroots power. “He doesn’t have people where we do. We’ve been up against this fight before and we’ve shown that we can go toe-to-toe with any outside spending.”
Cisneros’s campaign called on Democratic Party leaders Wednesday to withdraw support for Cuellar in light of their denunciation of the draft opinion and his opposition to abortion rights. “At every turn, my Congressman has stood in opposition to the Democratic Party agenda from being anti-union to being anti-choice,” Cisneros said in a press release. Pelosi and Clyburn did not respond to a request for comment.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which backs incumbent members, has not made an endorsement in the race. On Tuesday, the DCCC released statements calling the draft opinion “a devastating blow” to safe and legal abortion and denouncing Republicans in Virginia, Florida, Arizona, New Hampshire, Michigan, and North Carolina as “complicit in this all out assault on women’s freedoms.” None of the statements mentioned Cuellar.
While DCCC hasn’t explicitly weighed in, several of its approved vendors are working to reelect Cuellar, The American Prospect reported Wednesday. Last month, as Cuellar faced scrutiny after an FBI raid reportedly connected to his Azerbaijani business interests, DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney told The Hill that Democrats would maintain control of the district. He did not specify which candidate would hold it.
“Losing the right to choose is imminent,” Cisneros wrote in a tweet on Monday about the draft option. “Yet, Cuellar voted with Republicans against codifying #Roe.” She called for contributions to Texas abortion funds and wrote, “We have the last word on May 24.”
“I’m more than ready to start working with them to deliver on the Democratic agenda,” Cisneros told The Intercept. “I hope that Democratic Party leadership won’t stand in the way of delivering for the people here.”