May 24 promises to be a big day for Jessica Cisneros. On that day, the immigrant rights attorney from Laredo, Texas faces nine-term Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX) in a run-off election.
She also turns 29 years old.
On March 1, Cisneros won 46.8 percent of the vote in Texas’ 28th Congressional district to Cuellar’s 48.5 percent. A third candidate, Tanya Benavides, a teacher and activist also from Laredo, won 4.7 percent of the vote.
As no candidate received a majority of the vote, the race now heads to a run-off between the top two candidates.
Cisneros surprised many in 2020 by coming within 2,700 votes of beating Cuellar, who outspent her by $700,000. Since then, Texas’ 28th has been redrawn to include more parts of liberal San Antonio.
Benavides also endorsed Cisneros earlier this week, and assuming those who voted for Benavides on March 1 will now opt for the young challenger with similar politics in the run-off, Cisneros is optimistic about her chances of securing the Democratic Party’s nomination.
“We’ve been doing a lot of planning, reflecting,” she told Latino Rebels. “Obviously we want to make sure that we’re doing better every single race that we’re in, and I think we’re doing that. The first time that we ran, you know, we came very, very close to defeating Cuellar. This time around we’re only one percentage point off–you know, the trail was just 800 votes. … So we’re getting closer and closer.”
Momentum and her optimism aside, Cisneros still has her work cut out for her in defeating conservative Cuellar, whom she interned for in 2014 and who is known as the only anti-abortion Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She’s competing in an area of South Texas that shifted toward former President Donald Trump in 2020. Zapata County down on the U.S.-Mexico border went for Hillary Clinton by 30 percent in 2016, only to swing for Trump by five percent in 2020. Clinton won neighboring Starr County, also on the border, by a whopping 60 percent in 2016, but President Joe Biden only won the county by a slim five percent.
Cisneros, however, says these figures don’t give an accurate portrayal of how the district’s voters actually feel about key issues.
“We were out there knocking on doors,” Cisneros said about her 2020 campaign, “and the biggest sentiment that we were getting from folks at the door, and I think part of the reason why we performed so strongly, is that people weren’t satisfied with the status quo—that the status quo just wasn’t working for them, that they were looking for something different. And basically the sentiment was: ‘Folks have been taking us for granted.'”
Texas’ 28th is a “reliably blue” district—it has elected a Democrat representative in every election since it was created in 1993. “Everything kind of gets settled in the primary,” Cisneros explained.
She points to a lack of serious challenges to the incumbent over the years as the reason for voter apathy and resentment in 2020.
“We knew there was this hunger for people wanting something different, and I do think Republicans took advantage of that,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why Trump kind of performed very well.”
Cisneros cites Trump’s frequent visits to South Texas, “even when it wasn’t campaign season,” for his popularity in 2020. She also believes the COVID pandemic hurt Democratic voter turnout and worried voters in general into questioning whether electing an establishment politican to the White House would resolve their basic kitchen-table concerns.
“I think people were tired, I guess, of voting the same way at the top of the ticket and circumstances hadn’t changed. The fact that the poverty rate is still very high, people still have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, one in four people were uninsured—those things weren’t changing. So they were like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna try something different.'”
Cisneros says her performance in the March 1st elections showed that the success of her 2020 campaign “wasn’t a fluke.”
“It wasn’t a mistake,” she said. “We are competitive. Our vision for South Texas is competitive, and people are looking for something different. And I think the bold policy that we are providing satisfies, you know, that people recognize that there has to be a change, and I’m glad that they decided to trust us with their vote. And I really hope we can count on them turning out again so that we can finish this off once and for all.”
Cisneros is the progressive challenger to Cuellar’s conservative incumbency, having earned endorsements from Justice Democrats, the group founded by former leaders of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) 2016 presidential campaign that went on to help elect Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY) and other members of the progressive “Squad” in 2018, along with Reps. Ro Khanna (CA), Raúl Grijalva (AZ), and Pramila Jayapal (WA). Ocasio-Cortez even stumped for Cisneros ahead of the March 1st election this year, and Cisneros received Sanders’ endorsement around the same time.
“Jessica knows that real change comes from the bottom on up, not the top on down,” the Senator said in a February 14 statement. “She will fight for the working class in Congress and together we will build a movement to transform this nation so that it works for all our people.”
“A lot of people say ‘Manchin, Manchin, Manchin,’” Ocasio-Cortez said at a San Antonio rally for Cisneros in February, referring to the West Virginia Senator notorious for blocking his party’s agenda. “But we know it’s not just Manchin. You know who’s helping him? Henry Cuellar.”
Given her progressive bona fides, some worry that a run-off win for Cisneros might hand Texas’ 28th district to the Republican opponent. (May 24 will also see a run-off election between two Republican candidates: Cassy Garcia, a former deputy state director for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and political newcomer Sandra Whitten.)
Ian Haney López, a public law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who has studied the Latino vote in South Texas, told the New York Times in February that Cisneros had begun to moderate her message by focusing less on her identity as the daughter of Mexican immigrants and her support for immigration reform, and more on the more popular planks in her platform: expanding health care, raising the minimum wage, and protecting reproductive rights.
Cisneros herself disagrees with this assessment.
“I don’t think we’ve been pivoting,” she said. “We’ve been talking about this from the very beginning. It’s always been about health care. It’s always been about increasing the minimum wage. Like, those are our bread-and-butter issues, and I think it’s much more so that people have this misconception about how we’re talking about the issues.”
Cisneros insists that her campaign has always been centered on “South Texas values.”
“Our hardworking South Texas families deserve health care and they deserve good-paying jobs, and anything that we can do to provide the opportunity for them to prosper, that’s good policy.”
The graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and former supervising attorney for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (known as RAICES) says she isn’t worried about the general election but is mostly focused on winning the primary on May 24.
“I feel confident that if we’re continuing to do the work that we’re doing—like, not just advancing the policy that we’re talking about or proposing, but also the kind of campaign that we are running, right? That we are inspiring a lot of people, especially young people, to get involved. And, you know, this beautiful coalition that we’ve been building from folks from all—you know, different demographics here in the district. That’s part of the reason why we’ve been very successful,” she said.
With the leaked draft of a looming Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade launching reproductive rights to the political forefront nationwide, the race between Cisneros, who has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and Cuellar, the last pro-life Democrat in the House, might boil down to a referendum on abortion.
On May 4, two days after news of the leaked draft shook the country, Cisneros blasted Cuellar for his anti-abortion stance.
“As the Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade, I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” she said in a statement.
On the same day, Cuellar, who was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act last year, which would’ve codified the abortion rights protections in Roe at the federal level, boasted of his support by the Democratic leadership at a rally in San Antonio.
“Pelosi has endorsed me. Steny has endorsed me. Clyburn has endorsed me,” he told the crowd.
As speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the most powerful Democrat in the lower chamber. Rep. Steny Hoyer has been the House majority leader since 2019, and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who joined Cuellar on stage at the rally, is the House majority whip.
On April 29, America United, a new super PAC to support Latino House candidates —and formed by consultants for Biden’s, Barack Obama’s, and Sanders’ presidential campaigns— donated $241,000 to Cuellar’s campaign.
“The effort suggests at least some Democratic operatives and donors remain willing to back an anti-abortion candidate in a safe Democratic district in a state controlled by right-wingers,” write Andrew Perez and David Dayen for The American Prospect.
Cisneros, though, is unfazed.
“My team and I, you know, we’re showing that we can punch above our weight, and we’re just focused on getting the job done,” she said. “We don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by anything. You know, there’s always gonna be doubters out there. There’s always gonna be people that are telling me, like, what I’m doing is hard or maybe even impossible. But they said that about running against Cuellar, too, and we’re at the brink of defeating him. So I’m not too worried about that.”
Cisneros herself is backed by Emily’s List, the Latino Victory Fund, and a number of labor unions, including the Texas AFL-CIO.
In the end, she credits her Mexican immigrant parents and her South Texas roots for inspiring her to serve in public office.
“Growing up, my parents have always been, you know, teaching me to always serve and give back,” she said. “‘Amor al prójimo y tener corazón de sierva’ (Love your neighbor and have a servant’s heart)—like, that’s always what they’ve told me, right? And the work that I went into, you know, being an immigration attorney, was very much rooted in that.”
She says the arguments she once made before an immigration judge are essentially the same as those she’s now making on the campaign trail—and the same as those she plans to make in the halls of Congress.
“We’re still making the case of why we deserve a shot at the American Dream,” she explained.
“I was asked to run, to step up and toss my hat into the ring, and it was a scary decision but honestly the honor of a lifetime. And I think the reason that I felt comfortable doing it is because I pride myself in having an ear to the ground and being surrounded by people that, you know, are everyday South Texans. And they agreed, you know: we do deserve better representation. So that’s why I decided to jump in.
“Obviously I don’t fit the traditional profile, I guess, of somebody, you know, that’s gonna run for an office like this,” Cisneros added. “But, to be honest, I’m gonna be representing people that also don’t meet that, you know, kind of criteria. So I really want people to know that, you know, if you know you’re doing it for the right reasons, the community’s gonna respond and be there alongside with you.”