Democratic House challenger Jessica Cisneros has generally stayed silent about her party leadership’s endorsement of Rep. Henry Cuellar in their primary. But Cuellar’s staunch anti-abortion stance is giving Cisneros another opportunity to boost her profile.
The progressive challenger on Wednesday called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants to withdraw their endorsement of Cuellar as part of the Democratic Party’s efforts to protect abortion rights. The party is looking into ways to enshrine abortion rights into law after POLITICO reported a draft majority Supreme Court opinion striking down 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,” Cisneros said in a statement on Wednesday. “With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk.”
Her statement came hours before Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) was set to rally in Laredo with Cuellar Wednesday evening, three weeks before the Democratic primary runoff for the South Texas district. Notably, Pelosi and other leaders also continued to support Cuellar after his home was raided by the FBI. Cisneros finished a point and a half behind Cuellar in the March primary, but neither reached majority support, triggering the one-on-one runoff.
In the past, Cisneros has said she understands the responsibility of senior members of Congress like Pelosi is to support incumbents.
But Cisneros, who has support from congressional progressives like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), has also keyed in on health care and abortion as key differences between her and Cuellar, who last year voted against a House bill that would have put a nationwide right to abortion into law and counteracted Texas’ six-week abortion ban. The proposal failed in the Senate.
“It’s called conscience,” Cuellar said after that vote. “Sometimes people vote because of political [reasons], they think this is a Democratic or Republican issue. To me, it’s a matter of conscience.”
This week, Cuellar issued a statement about the draft Supreme Court opinion, saying Tuesday evening that while he has always opposed abortion, he disagrees with an outright ban that doesn’t feature exceptions for cases of rape, incest or danger to the parent’s life. Repealing Roe v. Wade would “further divide the country during these already divisive times,” Cuellar said, adding that he wants to wait until a final ruling is issued.
A majority of Texas voters oppose an automatic ban on all abortions in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned, according to a May 2 report from the Texas Politics Project. Public polling specifically in Cuellar’s district is not available.
Last month, a woman was charged with murder over a self-induced abortion in Starr County on Texas’ border — charges that were dismissed after she spent three days in jail, but not before the case drew some national attention. Cisneros told the San Antonio Express-News that the issue “really is close to home,” calling it representative of the future under another Cuellar term.
With the Democratic runoff three weeks away, Cuellar’s current ads still focus on border security. But Cisneros’ first spot of the runoffs — which has run nearly 500 times on local TV since it launched last week — is a 30-second ad that calls out Cuellar as the “lone Democrat” in the House who voted against codifying Roe v. Wade, saying he sided with Texas Republicans.
“But on May 24, you can have the last word,” the ad said after juxtaposing images of Cuellar with state GOP lawmakers.
On Monday, before the news of the draft Supreme Court opinion broke, NARAL Pro-Choice America announced a concentrated organizing effort in the Texas district for Cisneros. This includes a new digital ad that claims “freedom is on the ballot” ahead of the runoffs, doubling down on her position as a fighter for health care access. The organization endorsed Cisneros in both 2020 and 2022, and previously released ads on her behalf.
At the national level, President Joe Biden — who repeatedly voted to ban federal abortion funding before changing his views — stated that the future of protecting abortion rights would fall on elected officials should Roe v. Wade be overturned.
“It will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November,” Biden said in a Tuesday statement. “At the federal level, we will need more pro-choice Senators and a pro-choice majority in the House to adopt legislation that codifies Roe.”