Campaign

Supreme Court leak throws curve into pivotal Texas primary

The leaked draft Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade is throwing a late curveball into progressive efforts to unseat incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar in a Texas Democratic primary runoff.

Cuellar is known by many as the last anti-abortion Democrat in Congress, while his progressive primary opponent, Jessica Cisneros, has been forcefully in favor of abortion rights, earning her the support of national abortion rights groups.

The Texas standoff takes place in a state that earlier this year enacted the strictest abortion ban in the country — a law known as Senate Bill 8.

Progressive supporters of Cisneros are hoping the focus on abortion will bolster their candidate.

“I think that people will be thinking about this issue when they go to vote in the runoff election in Texas-28 because of the Supreme Court, because of SB-8,” said Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“When this draft opinion was leaked on Monday night, it sparked a widespread nationwide conversation,” she added.

Cuellar addressed the news head-on in a statement on Tuesday in which he called himself anti-abortion but cautioned against an outright ban on abortion.

“Let me be clear about the leaked opinion of the potential SCOTUS ruling, it is not based on precedent and is not incremental in nature,” Cuellar said. “It will further divide the country during these already divisive times, but let us wait until the final ruling.”

“As a Catholic, I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban,” he continued. “There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother.”

Cisneros asked the House Democrats to withdraw their support of Cuellar, citing the leaked draft decision.

“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 statement.

Last year, Cuellar was the only Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have protected abortion access at a federal level in the wake of the Texas abortion law.

House Democratic leaders appear to be steadfast in their support of Cuellar ahead of the runoff. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) traveled to Texas on Wednesday to campaign for the incumbent.

Clyburn referenced the party’s disagreements with Cuellar on various issues during a private event with local leaders, according to The Texas Tribune.

“We can’t expect one person to agree with us all of the time. You don’t grow that way. When I sit down with people who agree with me, there’s nothing to be learned from that sitting,” Clyburn said, adding that he’s “learned a lot from Henry Cuellar.”

Republicans and the anti-abortion lobby aren’t exactly in lockstep with Cuellar on every issue either.

Conservatives and Republicans have hit Cuellar for other votes, including one in June for a $600 billion spending package that did not include the Hyde amendment, a legislative provision that blocks the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.

The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List has hit Cuellar’s record on the issue and has endorsed Cassy Garcia, a candidate in the district’s GOP runoff.

“Unfortunately, Rep. Cuellar is finding out the hard way that you can’t claim to be pro-life while voting in lockstep with some of the most extreme positions of the pro-abortion lobby,” the group’s political coordinator, Kaitlin Makuski, told The Hill.

Makuski also hit Cisneros over her abortion rights credentials in the district, calling them “politically disastrous.”

Experts and political watchers point out that Cuellar has had to walk a fine line on the abortion issue, given the district’s large socially conservative, Roman Catholic population. However, abortion rights activists point out that having personal views aligned with the official position of the Catholic Church does not necessarily translate into advocating for government involvement in abortion.

The district, like many across the Lone Star State, is experiencing ideological and demographic changes,

Cuellar’s strength lies in the southern portion of the district toward Laredo, while Cisneros has performed well in the northern portion of the district toward San Antonio.

On top of that, there are many other factors at play in the runoff, including concern over the flow of migrants from the U.S. southern border. Cuellar is a vocal opponent of the Biden administration’s move to lift Title 42. The policy allows the U.S. turn away migrants seeking asylum to prevent “the introduction of communicable diseases” without their first seeing an immigration judge.

“[Congressional District] 28 voters, like any other voters, are worried about jobs. They’re worried about inflation, they’re worried about rising gas prices, and unlike other parts of the country, they are worried about the border and border security and immigration,” said Jon Taylor, a professor and chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s political science department.

Cuellar has hit Cisneros over immigration, rolling out an ad in February claiming that her immigration stances would lead to “open borders.”

Cisneros, on the other hand, has hammered Cuellar over his stances on abortion.

Abortion rights groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America are doubling down on efforts to elect Cisneros. NARAL Pro-Choice America is rolling out a new digital ad, increasing its door knocking and phone banking and sending four members of its organizing staff to the district.

The district’s primary runoff is set to take place on May 24, marking the culmination of a tight race that has drawn national attention.

Cisneros nearly defeated Cuellar in 2020 before challenging him for a second time this cycle. The race has been rocked by an FBI investigation involving Cuellar, which his attorney says he is not the subject of, and bitter personal attacks on both sides.

“I think this is short-term,” Taylor said, predicting potential success for Cuellar. “Long-term, it’s people like Jessica Cisneros that are going to be more representative of the Democrats of Texas as we go forward.”

Updated at 8:24 a.m.

Tags Abortion Henry Cuellar James Clyburn Jessica Cisneros jessica cisneros Supreme Court Texas

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