The 2022 midterm season began suboptimally for Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar. He was already facing a tough primary challenge from a well-financed opponent for a district that’s always targeted by Republicans in the fall. Then the FBI raided his home.
He watched as high profile Democrats either turned their backs on him or endorsed his Democratic challenger.
But despite being forced into a runoff, Cuellar survived.
And some of the same Democrats who were actively rooting against him earlier this year, are now praying he continues to thrive.
If he’s successful, it could be somewhat astounding, given the circumstances.
When Jessica Cisneros chose to make a run at Cuellar for the second time in two election cycles, Cuellar’s team knew it was serious. With little funding and name ID the first time, she had come within striking distance. This time she had money and endorsements from heavy hitters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
In January, the FBI publicly raided his home, leaving him largely unable to reveal details about why numerous boxes were carried out of his suburban dwelling, even now. His lawyer later claimed the Department of Justice says Cuellar is not a target of the investigation, which was related to business dealings in Azerbaijan, The Daily Beast reported at that time. In time, shots of the raid have been featured in campaign ads against him—and raised questions among voters.
After that, neither Cuellar nor his progressive opponent hit 50% in the primary, and the contest went into an agonizing two-and-a-half-month runoff, which he won by just under 300 votes.
And then, the Supreme Court this summer struck down Roe v. Wade, and Cuellar’s stance as the lone House Democrat who’s openly against abortion was more in the limelight than ever.
It’s not the sort of year that sets any Democrat up for success. Even more so in a region like South Texas where Republicans, emboldened by their gains with Latino voters in recent elections, have been funneling money in for their candidates, including Cuellar’s GOP opponent Cassy Garcia.
Latching on to his name recognition and status as the “King of Laredo,” Cuellar’s somehow forecasted to do well this November.
As Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project, put it in an interview: “I wouldn’t bet against Cuellar.”
As his Democratic colleagues in similar electoral positions have watched their chances fluctuate throughout the year, the Democratic Congressional Committee didn’t add Cuellar to their “frontliners” list of the most endangered Democrats—nor did his seat ever fall into Republican territory on independent ranking lists like Cook Political Report, which ranks the contest as “Lean Dem.”
Many of the DCCC’s frontliners list is made up of moderates like Cuellar who hail from swing districts, like Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Sanford Bishop (D-GA) or Jared Golden (D-ME), who are also members of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition in Congress with Cuellar.
To be sure, anything could happen. Garcia is well-resourced and Republicans have made tangible gains in the region. Districts like Cuellar’s are also notoriously difficult to poll, with low connectivity, language barriers, mixed-immigration statuses and more.
But there’s a mix of reasons Cuellar—and ultra-moderate in the House—is likely able to level with voters in this light blue district.
He’s a stalwart on increasing protection at the border. He’s known for bringing much-needed funds back to the area. He’s not ultra-cozy with President Biden and was open to former President Trump’s policies in ways other Democrats were not. And his connections in the town run deep; his brother Martin is the sheriff, while his sister Rosie is the former county tax collector.
As Blank puts it, Cuellar is a “good match for the district,” and voters don’t have to make much of a mental leap to vote for a congressman who they’ve already elected nine times.
“For all of the problems the Democrats may or may not be having in South Texas, Henry Cuellar is not the focal point of those problems,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean Republicans are taking it easy on the congressman. In ads, the GOP has blasted him as a corrupt, out-of-touch politician who deserves the boot.
“Time for Henry Cuellar to start answering questions. The FBI’s asking. Raiding his house. Probing ties to a middle-east government,” one ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee said.
Another NRCC ad featured allegations that Cuellar “does it for the power, money and prestige” and that Cuellar had “tasted the good life, almost living like a king” who’s only offering voters the scraps from his table.
An ad by the Congressional Leadership Fund, another Republican-aligned PAC, insisted Cuellar “really” lives in his D.C. residence, pointing out a number of amenities allegedly included in the condo building like a 24-hour concierge and a fitness center (none of which that are not all that unusual for D.C. apartment complexes).
“He’s gone Washington. Forgot about us,” the narrator chimes.
And national conservatives are optimistic about Garcia’s chances, though Democrats have sought to pin her as a threat to social security and health care. One GOP strategist told The Daily Beast they’re confident Cuellar’s standing in the district is shaky, stating, “He’s struggling… I think that his image has become fairly unpopular in the district.”
Blank pointed out there’s more Democrats in this district may need to do in order to be successful, other than just attacking Garcia’s policy positions. They need to push for turnout at a much higher rate than years past, he said.
With increased investments from Republicans, the GOP base in South Texas is mobilized to an increasing degree. That means Democrats like Cuellar have to work to amp up turnout to keep up with energized GOP voters, some of whom may not have voted in elections past.
Ed Espinoza, president of the group Progress Texas, also told The Daily Beast Democrats need to be cognizant of keeping up their energy and investments in South Texas writ large, even if Republicans aren’t explicitly stealing seats away en masse yet.
“South Texas is not a base Democratic area. The Latino community in general is not a base Democratic community. A portion of it is base-Democrat and a portion of it is swing. A portion of it’s conservative and that’s the case everywhere,” he said.
Not keeping the grassroots work going in districts like Cuellar’s could force Democrats to pay the price in future elections.
“Democrats ignore South Texas at their own peril,” he said.
The Daily Beast