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WASHINGTON — It’s been a tough year for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar. In January, the Laredo Democrat’s home was raided by the FBI weeks before his primary. Then, the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer cemented his status as a pariah with many in his party, for being the only Democrat to vote earlier in the year against a bill to protect abortion access.
But heading into November, Cuellar isn’t running scared. He’s wearing the label of a moderate like a badge of honor. And he doesn’t appear to be any worse for the wear.
“I think people want us to govern from the center, whether we are Democrats or Republicans,” Cuellar said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I think people are getting tired of the extreme left and the extreme right.”
Cuellar faces off against Cassy Garcia, a former staffer of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and member of the Trump administration, for Congressional District 28 in South Texas — one of the few competitive races left in the state after redistricting last year changed the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts.
Cuellar’s status as one of the few remaining “moderate” Democrats may also be paying dividends for his fundraising, as he took in almost $4.9 million as of the end of June, smashing his usual pace for previous years. At that point in his last race against Republican Sandra Whitten, he had raised $2.4 million. In 2018, he had raised just $1.3 million. The next fundraising disclosure deadline is Oct. 15.
Due to redistricting, however, this is one of the most competitive general election races the longtime congressman has had in years, boosting the need for stronger fundraising.
Some of the newest and largest donors to his campaign are political action committees that primarily contribute to Republican candidates and support conservative causes. This includes $4,000 from the Justice, Liberty and Freedom PAC, affiliated with former U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble; $3,000 from a lobbying firm that has contributed to GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Chuck Grassley and $2,900 from Build Our Future PAC, which has given handsomely to the political action committee for John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.
“He is now pretty much alone as a conservative Democrat in the house,” said David Wasserman, one of the nation’s top election forecasters at Cook Political Report. “His campaign committee is a safe place for corporate PACs to donate to prove they are bipartisan without being antithetical to their views.”
Cuellar characterizes his position on abortion access as moderate, saying abortion should be “rare, legal and safe.”
But he was the lone Democrat in the House to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022 in July, which aimed to preserve access to abortion care at the federal level. That bill never advanced in the Senate.
While opposing abortion, Cuellar has been critical of Texas’ law passed last year that restricted abortions after roughly six weeks of pregnancy. He was especially critical of the law’s enforcement mechanism that encouraged and rewarded regular citizens to enforce the law through civil litigation. After Texas banned nearly all abortions after Roe v. Wade was overturned, he voted in support of a bill that would protect the right for a woman to cross state borders to seek the procedure where it’s still legal.
“That’s a position that I’ve had, but now we see that the Democrats have gone one particular direction and Republicans have gone a different direction,” Cuellar said. “In many ways, my position has not changed from when I was in the state Legislature.”
Cuellar’s outlier stance on abortion is especially notable given that so many Democrats heading into the midterms are relying on a boost of enthusiasm related to anger over the Supreme Court’s action. But Cuellar’s South Texas district, which is predominantly Hispanic, may have more socially conservative Democrats.
“The abortion issue is complicated here because it is a heavily Catholic district,” Wasserman said. “Cuellar is closer to the median voter in this district on this issue.”
Sylvia Bruni, chair of Webb County Democrats, is a Catholic who does not believe in abortion but also does not support government bans against it. While she said she has seen “palpable anger” in voters over the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she also thinks the default stance on Cuellar for many is this: He’s better than the alternative.
“Right now anything Republican for me is an absolute danger signal,” Bruni said. “Generally speaking, another Republican in Congress would be disastrous for us.”
During his contentious primary against challenger Jessica Cisneros, progressives hammered Cuellar after Politico reported the leak of the Supreme Court’s plans to overturn the constitutional protection protection for abortions. Left-wing heavyweights like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York went scorched earth on the Democratic incumbent.
“The fact is those who fail their communities deserve to lose,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about Cuellar in May. “They don’t need rescuing from powerful leaders who state they fight for gun safety, the right to choose, and more.”
Ocasio-Cortez was referencing the heavy-handed support of House Democratic leadership that Cullar received in his primary. In the thick of the close battle, influential party figures, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, endorsed the longtime congressman. And House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina traveled to Texas after the bombshell report of Roe v. Wade’s demise to campaign for Cuellar, saying the party shouldn’t shun abortion opponents.
Perhaps boosted by his win in the primary — however narrow it was — Cuellar became more vocal this summer about his political convictions.
“Of course I have a place in the Democratic Party. The question is, do those people have a place in the Democratic Party?” Cuellar said of Ocasio-Cortez to Axios in June. “Let me be me and I’ll keep this seat as a Democrat.”
In public appearances this summer, Cuellar has further leaned into his reputation for crossing the aisle. In two Fox News interviews in June, he railed against the record number of border crossings in Texas — echoing many conservatives — and scorched the “far left” of his party that “doesn’t understand reality.”
Cuellar made another Fox News appearance in September in which he lambasted the Biden administration’s border policies, saying he wants more deportations.
“They’re making it very hard for Democrats, where the Republicans are pouncing on Democrats, saying they’re not for secure borders,” Cuellar said.
But Republicans don’t think Cuellar is conservative enough, and they are throwing millions of dollars behind Garcia, who says she truly embodies the values of the South Texas district.
“The reason why I am running for Congress is to defend faith, family and freedom,” Garcia said on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in July. “The current incumbent Henry Cuellar, who says all the right things, has done absolutely nothing to secure our southern border.”
House Republican leadership will spend around $4 million on Garcia this cycle. Her campaign raised over $1.1 million in the third quarter of the year alone, it announced this week.
She has hammered Cuellar over the FBI raid on his Laredo home and campaign office, an ominous cloud over the Congressman’s reelection bid. No charges have been filed and Cuellar’s attorney has said that the congressman is not the target of the investigation.
While the details of the raid have not officially been released, ABC News reported shortly after the raid that a grand jury sought records related to Cuellar, his wife and one of his campaign staffers over connections to Azerbaijan. Cuellar is a member of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and often speaks out advocating for the oil-rich country. The Associated Press confirmed the report.
“The incumbent cannot pick up the phone and ask the DOJ [Department of Justice] to prosecute gangs and cartels when he’s afraid they’ll tell him, ‘Hey, Henry, now that we have you on the line, let’s talk about our ongoing criminal investigation against you,’” Garcia said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.
Cuellar has remained steadfast that he is not the target of a criminal investigation and said the investigation will ultimately clear him of any wrongdoing.
“As my attorney has said, I am not a target of the investigation. We will cooperate with law enforcement,” Cuellar said. “At the end of the day, we will see that there was no wrongdoing.”
Cuellar’s primary opponent Cisneros, who lost by less than 300 votes, cautioned that Cuellar’s moderate reputation is downright conservative at times.
The last time Cuellar was a member in a GOP-controlled House, right after the election of former President Donald Trump, Cuellar voted against a majority of House Democrats almost 17% of the time, one of the highest rates in Congress.
“He was the only Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, he was one of a handful of Democrats to vote against gun reform after the Uvalde shooting that happened on election day,” Cisneros said. “I mean I decided to jump into the race because during the Trump administration he was voting with Donald Trump 70 percent of the time.”
No matter who wins the majority this fall, Cuellar said it won’t affect how he does his job.
“I prefer a House controlled by a Democrat majority, but even in the past when the Republicans were in control, I was still able to get my job done,” Cuellar said. “I don’t raise a red flag with Republicans, I am able to sit down with them. I have been successful no matter if it’s a Democratic or Republican Congress.”
Disclosure: Politico has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.