By Eric Bradner and Rachel Janfaza, CNN
Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros will advance to a May runoff after a neck-and-neck primary race that saw both finish below the 50% threshold necessary to secure the nomination outright, CNN projected Wednesday.
Cuellar is the most conservative Democrat in the US House — the only member of his caucus to oppose abortion rights, casting votes that have infuriated many in his party. Cisneros, an immigration lawyer, nearly ousted Cuellar in a 2020 primary. Weeks ahead of their rematch, Cuellar’s house was searched by the FBI, which Cisneros used in television ads to cast Cuellar as corrupt. The congressman has denied any wrongdoing.
While Cisneros campaigned aggressively, Cuellar largely dropped off the trail, relying on TV ads and direct mail pieces that emphasized his experience and Laredo roots.
A third candidate, Tannya Benavides, an organizer in South Texas who sought to position herself outside the progressive-versus-conservative frame, won nearly 5% of the vote — enough to hold both Cuellar and Cisneros below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
While Cuellar and Cisneros are both from Laredo, the race split along geographic lines: Counties closer to San Antonio overwhelmingly supported the more progressive Cisneros, while Cuellar was dominant along the border.
His strong performance in the Rio Grande Valley offered a window into Democrats’ struggle with Latino voters, many of them more culturally conservative than the Democratic Party overall. Though Democrats have long led Republicans with those voters, President Joe Biden’s poor performance in portions of South Texas and South Florida in 2020 compared to Democrats in previous elections was enough to alarm the party.
Cisneros was widely supported by progressive organizations and leading figures on the left, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Cuellar, though, is a political institution in South Texas. He served in the state House starting in 1987, then, briefly, as Texas secretary of state in 2001. In 2004, after he narrowly defeated a sitting Democratic lawmaker in the primary, he won his seat in Congress.
His performance in Webb County, the vote-rich home of Laredo, underscored how difficult he will be to oust in May despite the cloud of the FBI investigation and his decision to mostly avoid in-person campaign events.
“We are ready to keep going,” he said in the statement. “I look forward to once again winning the majority of voters and come May 24th, be re-elected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress.”
Cisneros, at a campaign party Tuesday night in Laredo, vowed to win in May.
“Today, we proved just how powerful our movement is and are ready to keep fighting for the future we deserve,” she said in a Tuesday night statement. “Together, we will take control back from Big Oil, private prisons, and Wall Street, and put it back where it belongs: with the people.”
This story has been updated with additional background.
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