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Issue #52: The Texas 28th - A Tale of Two Cities and an ideological divide
Conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar faces a progressive challenger
On Tuesday, Texas held its runoffs for the 2022 primaries. Without a doubt, the closest-watched Texas race was the race for Congressional District 28. The district, represented by Congressman Hendry Cuellar, goes from the San Antonio metro region and travels down to the Mexican border. It is one of several Hispanic-majority districts along the border region. The redrawn district is 73% Hispanic voting-age population.
Congressman Cuellar is by far the most conservative member of the House Democratic caucus. In recent weeks, Cuellar’s pro-life positions; supporting abortion only in cases of rape, incest, or life/health of the mother, has generated the most attention. However, he is also conservative on issues like gun control, labor unions, immigration, and energy. His office and home were also raided by the FBI as part of an investigation into the nation of Azerbaijan and several US businessmen.
Cuellar’s conservativity politics isn’t entirely out of step with part of his district. He hails from Laredo, right on the Texas border. This region is heavily Democratic but also much more conservative, especially on social issues. The region is very religious, with most border counties over 50-60% Hispanic Catholic and 20-30% Hispanic protestant. Local Democratic politicians are notably to the right of the national party, more on social issues than economic. This is a similar dynamic that Democrats had in Appalachia and the south for a long time. However, Cuellar’s conservative politics is far out-of-step with the San Antonio portion of the district. This part of the district is much more mainline liberal, far to the left of where Cuellar is politically. This creates a deep geographic and ideological divide within the district.
The Conservative Democrats of South Texas
The southern Hispanic counties have flexed their conservative muscle in past primaries. In 2014, State Senator Wendy Davis lost several border counties while she was securing 80% in the statewide Democratic primary for Governor. She lost several counties to an unknown opponent. Davis was famous at this point for her filibuster of the Texas 20-week abortion ban. She ran in 2014 with a large campaign war chest as a result of that fame.
Polling data from the time matched the lack of Davis support in the primary among Hispanic voters; with Texas Democratic Hispanics being less pro-choice than white Democrats.
Cuellar avoided serious primary threats until recent years. In 2020, he faced a major challenge from attorney, and former Cuellar office intern, Jessica Cisneros. Left-wing groups sought to oust Cuellar, but the Congressman held on with 52% of the vote. Progressives still made inroads that year. In Illinois, conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski lost his primary to progressive Marie Newman.
Lipinski is also a pro-life Democrat, however, he had even more baggage than Cuellar. Lipinski voted against Obamacare, was very conservative on LGBT issues, and was overall seen as far too conservative for a safe Democratic seat in Chicago. Lipinski did have an ideological base in some working class communities, but he more relied on Chicago boss Mike Madigan’s political machine to win more than anything.
Cuellar was always likely to face another primary, but a further complication emerged in November of 2020. That November, as Joe Biden won the presidency with continued suburban gains and a narrow swing with working class white, a massive Hispanic shift to the GOP took place. Hispanic voters in multiple states, but most famously Texas and Florida, moved many points to the right. In Texas, the border counties had major swings.
The rural county of Zapata, which is over 90% Hispanic, voted Republican for President for the first time in 100 years. However, it remained more Democratic down-ballot.
Congressman Cuellar won his district by 19%, the same day Biden took it by just 4%. There is growing worry among Democrats that they will continue to lose ground in the region. Republicans, meanwhile, are making major investments in the border counties. Cuellar has used this to argue he is needed for the district to keep it in Democratic hands. The new 28th, altered in redistricting, backed Biden by 7%, down from Clinton’s 20% margin. Cuellar’s allies continue to argue the district risks trending further right. However, his electability argument is hurt by the FBI investigation and the possibility of more to come out on the matter. Cuellar’s opponents have cited not just his politics, but also the investigation as a major issue.
Cuellar and Cisneros would face off in a rematch a this year, and the district remains as divided as ever.
Primary and Runoff Results
In the March primary, Cuellar managed to edge out Cisneros, but failed to take 50% of the vote. A clear divide in the district was present - with Cuellar dominating in the border counties, but losing badly in San Antonio. Cuellar counted on a big vote batch from Webb County and his Laredo home. He needed the entire border region to overtake San Antonio’s dense vote totals.
In the runoff, Cuellar emerged with a 177 vote lead. That is as of this writing, but some provisionals/oversees are left, then a recount. Either candidate could still win, but Cuellar is likely to be in the lead when the recount begins. The runoff saw an even greater polarization emerge. The San Antonio region swung even more to Cisneros, while Cuellar consolidated the border even more.
The margins in several counties are landslides. It really highlights how different the North and South ends of the district are from each other.
In such a close race, every county matters. That said, this was still truly a fight between Webb and Bexar county. The two population centers stand out like giants in the district. Both gave their preferred candidate huge vote margins.
Like I said before, both candidates further consolidated their bases in the runoff. Cuellar did worse around San Antonio, but better around the border counties. However, that is the story when comparing % margins. In terms of vote differences, the story is more complicated. Compared to the primary, the only county where Cuellar really increased his raw vote margin was Webb County.
Webb gave Cuellar a vote margin that was 3,200 higher than the primary. However, even in counties where Cuellar increased his %, like Zapata and Starr, he won by fewer votes than the primary. So what happened? Turnout fell.
Compared to the primary, turnout was down in the district by about 8%. However, in Cuellar-strong Zapata, Starr, and Jim Hogg, the turnout was WAYYYY down. Less than half of the Democratic primary voters showed up in Zapata. This hurt Cuellar, allowing Cisneros to lose those counties by fewer raw votes despite doing worse %-wise.
Looking to November
We don’t have a definitive winner yet, and realistically either could win. If Cuellar is the nominee, he will need to deal with the FBI investigation and make sure San Antonio Democrats vote down-ballot for him. Cisneros is a fresh face but is much more liberal, and would likely suffer erosion of support in the border counties.
Candidate issues aside, the region is continuing to get redder. The turnout drop for the runoff is very concerning, and the initial March primary saw a notable GOP swing in the border counties.
Democrats have major long term rebuilding to do in South Texas. The prospect that the 28th flips to the GOP, regardless of the candidate, is very real.