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Progressives voice anger at Democratic leaders over close Texas runoff

Progressives are voicing anger at the Democratic establishment following the closely fought runoff between Jessica Cisneros and incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), leading to what could be deep divisions in the district ahead of the general election.

As the results trickled in Wednesday and the race remained too close to call, progressives voiced their discontent with the House Democratic establishment for potentially pulling Cuellar over the finish line.

“On the day of a mass shooting and weeks after news of Roe, Democratic Party leadership rallied for a pro-NRA, anti-choice incumbent under investigation in a close primary. Robocalls, fundraisers, all of it,” progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in a tweet.

Most of the anger appeared to be directed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who ran recorded robocalls right before the election backing Cuellar. Clyburn even made a visit to Cuellar’s district for a campaign event earlier this month.

As of Wednesday morning, Cuellar led Cisneros by just 177 votes, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. Cuellar declared victory in the early hours of Wednesday, but Cisneros has not conceded.

Cuellar thanked Clyburn “for his steadfast support” in his statement claiming victory on Wednesday.

Even if Cuellar wins, the closeness of the results so far can be seen as a win for Cisneros, who closed the gap with Cuellar after challenging him two years ago. In 2020, Cuellar defeated Cisneros by more than 2,000 votes.

“With a margin this small, it’s clear that a pro-choice, anti-NRA Democrat could have easily won if it wasn’t for the full-throated support of Speaker Pelosi and the party establishment in Washington for anti-choice, pro-NRA Henry Cuellar,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats. “But right now the election is still too close to call.”

Moderates have cautioned that Cuellar, who has already been elected by the 28th Congressional District nine times, could be their best chance at holding the seat in a difficult election year.

But progressives argue he is beholden to special interests that are out of touch with his constituents.

“They aligned themselves with AIPAC, Big Oil, gun manufacturers, and the Koch brothers to support a man who consistently undermines our party and sent a signal to voters that incumbency is more important than Democratic values,” said Sawyer Hackett, senior communications strategist at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Progressives, including Cisneros, have also knocked Cuellar for his more conservative views on issues like abortion. And the incumbent congressman came under fire earlier this year when his Texas home and campaign offices were raided by the FBI as a part of an investigation into U.S. businessmen and Azerbaijan. Cuellar and his attorney say he has been cleared of any wrongdoing and is not a part of any investigation. The Justice Department has not commented on the matter.

Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution, went further, accusing Democrats in Washington of turning their backs on working families.

“Democratic leadership and countless corporate interests poured endless fundraising support into the incumbent’s campaign to fit their uninspiring, anti-progress mold,” Geevarghese said in a statement to The Hill. ”It’s time for Washington to wake up and recognize that working families want a progressive agenda.”

However, establishment Democratic allies are rejecting those points, arguing that it’s a majority of voters, not lawmakers from outside of the district, that have the power to decide the election.

“There’s a reason he has been consistently reelected in that district,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and Clyburn adviser. “So at some point, it’s about the people you represent, not about the people in Washington, D.C.”

“This has not been the first time the progressives have been upset because people decided to make their decisions about who they support,” Seawright said.

Clyburn, in particular, has helped Democrats against progressive and Republican opponents. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, he famously galvanized the Black vote in the South, propelling now-President Biden to victory against progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). And more than a year later, he backed now-Rep. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio) in her race against Sanders ally and progressive Nina Turner in the special election for Ohio’s 11th District. Brown defeated Turner twice, once in the 2021 special election and again in the Democratic primary earlier this month.

“I don’t think they get to decide what to be upset about because in the same way they feel like they’re upset about the speaker and the whip’s intervention, the speaker and the whip could be upset about their intervention,” Seawright said, pointing to Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Turner in her primary challenge against Brown this year.

“You can’t have it both ways,” he added.

Regardless, Democrats will face a tough race going into the general election against GOP nominee Cassy Garcia in November. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district as a “toss-up,” and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has included it on its target list.

“They’re desperate to keep their majority, even if it means supporting an incumbent who is flawed,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Seawright said that the priorities advocated for in the primary should remain consistent throughout the general election in an effort to keep turnout consistent.

“While you may have positions and policies that you may think should be a priority or should be advocated for in a different way, that does not mean those priorities line up with voters who have to come back out in November in the general election,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also closely watching the results. While some Democrats argue that Cuellar’s moderate credentials are more palatable to the district than Cisneros’s progressive views, Republicans say both Democrats are weak.

“We’ll take either of them,” said one GOP strategist with knowledge of the race. “Especially with Cuellar, if Dems think this is going to be a walk in the park for them now, they have another thing coming.”

But Garcia will not necessarily be a shoo-in for the district that Cuellar has represented since 2005.

“Even in what appears to be a good year for the GOP nationally, winning this traditionally Democratic district is still going to be a heavy lift.  And that’s part of what has progressives upset,” Taylor said.

Seawright argued that at the end of the day, the primary illustrates the ideological diversity of the party, but cautioned that all Democrats needed to be under the party tent to win.

“As Democrats, we’ve got to learn how to live understanding Jay-Z’s philosophy: ‘Nobody wins when the family feuds.’”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Antjuan Seawright Henry Cuellar James Clyburn Jessica Cisneros jessica cisneros Nancy Pelosi Texas Texas runoff

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