(The Hill) — Republicans and progressive Democrats alike say they are feeling better about their chances in Texas’s 28th Congressional District as nine-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) grapples with the fallout of an FBI raid on his home last week.
Supporters of Cuellar’s progressive primary challenger, Jessica Cisneros, say the development allows them to paint Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, as corrupt and out of touch — a campaign point they had been hammering even before the news broke.
“He’s been corrupted by money and being in power too long,” said a source close to the Cisneros campaign. “This is going to make it easier for folks to understand.”
At the same time, Republicans say the raid puts them in a win-win situation.
“Democrats are facing their nightmare scenario in South Texas, and know they’re doomed with either avowed socialist Jessica Cisneros or corrupt Congressman Henry Cuellar on the ballot,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The raid on Cuellar’s home is a part of a federal investigation into U.S. businessmen and Azerbaijan, according to CBS News. Cuellar has served as co-chair of the House Azerbaijan Caucus.
Cuellar released a video statement filmed in front of his childhood home on Tuesday, denying any wrongdoing and saying he intends to stay in the race.
“I am fully cooperating with law enforcement and committed to ensuring that justice and the law is upheld,” Cuellar said. “There is an ongoing investigation that will show that there is no wrongdoing on my part.”
“I pride myself on being your congressman and always doing things honestly, ethically, and the right way,” he continued.
“This is my home, my community, and why I got into politics. Nothing can distract me from getting the job done for you and for South Texas the way I always have. Let me be clear, I’m running for reelection and I intend to win.”
Cisneros’s campaign released its own statement on the matter last week, saying members of the campaign were aware of the news regarding the investigation but were focused on their own work.
The raid comes less than two months before the state’s primary on March 1. Cuellar defeated Cisneros by just over 3 points in 2020. Tannya Benavides is also running in the district’s Democratic primary.
“If he’s able to come out of the primary, I think he’ll survive it. I think it’s a real serious threat in the primary,” said one Texas-based political consultant.
The primary campaign is picking up. Cisneros went up on air with her campaign’s first broadcast buy of the cycle on Tuesday, focusing on her backing of “Medicare for All.” Cuellar released his own ad over the weekend, discussing how he and his family have excelled as a result of the American dream.
On Monday, Cisneros scored the endorsement of the San Antonio Express-News, which endorsed Cuellar over Cisneros in 2020. Cisneros was also endorsed Monday by the progressive group Our Revolution as a part of the group’s first round of 2022 picks.
“I do think that she was already competitive before the FBI raids, but this just amplifies her case that Henry Cuellar, while we don’t know the full scope of the investigation, her case has been that Henry Cuellar is too old and too Washington,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which has endorsed Cisneros.
The source close to Cisneros’s campaign reiterated that the campaign was staying laser-focused on kitchen table issues ahead of the primary.
“We know what Jessica is running on, and it’s the same thing she ran on last cycle,” the source told The Hill, citing access to health care, reproductive rights and jobs.
“It doesn’t really change how we approach the race,” the source added. “It just means that there’s more eyes on it heading into the primary season.”
Not everyone is convinced.
Cuellar still has high name recognition and a robust donor base. Additionally, turnout tends to be lower in midterm election years, which strategists say would benefit Cuellar over Cisneros.
“I think the question will be here, does his name ID and $2 million literally trump what the Cisneros campaign is trying to accomplish?” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
While the Democratic establishment, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), worked to boost Cuellar ahead of his primary in 2020, Democrats in Washington have been silent in the wake of the raid. White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about it at a press briefing on Monday but said “no comment.”
“It’s fairly obvious that holding on to the House is pretty tenuous as it is,” the Texas political consultant said, adding party leaders getting involved in a front-line district that shouldn’t be a front-line district in the midst of an FBI investigation would be a bad look.
Cisneros could also benefit from a changing political landscape. Progressives’ increasing frustration with moderate lawmakers in Washington and fresh political faces like Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke could help drive turnout, even in a midterm year. While O’Rourke has not endorsed Cisneros and is not campaigning for her, strategists argue his work driving enthusiasm and turnout could end up working in her favor.
“I’ve been hearing that he is running a GOTV [get-out-the-vote] primary campaign in the field even though he doesn’t have a real contested primary because he wants to help down-ballot Democrats get out the vote all the way around, which definitely helps Jessica,” Rocha said.
Like progressives, Republicans view the raid as a boost for themselves in the district. The party has been looking build on gains in south Texas made by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans in 2020. While the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Texas’s 28th Congressional District as favorable for Democrats, Republicans still view it as a potential pickup opportunity.
So far, seven Republicans have filed to run in the district, including Cassy Garcia, a former staffer to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), and Sandra Whitten, who lost to Cuellar in the 2020 general election by nearly 20 points. Garcia has the formal backing of Cruz.
“We feel very bullish on this district,” said one national Republican strategist. “It’s either going to be running a campaign of personal attacks on Cuellar for his corruption or a straight-up policy-based argument against Cisneros.”
“Either way, we’re in a better spot than we were two weeks ago in this district,” the strategist said.
Republicans argue Cuellar was already extremely moderate and that their messaging on the economy, crime and the border will play better with his voters than Cisneros’s vision.
“Henry Cuellar has been beating her up on wanting to defund the police and all of these other issues that we love to run on and can’t run against him on,” the GOP strategist said.
Cisneros’s allies brushed off the notion that the district stands to be a Republican pickup opportunity.
“I understand why that is their assessment,” said the source close to her campaign. “That’s probably a talking point they’re pushing for their fundraising.”
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