Cisneros lassos new momentum in battle with bruised Cuellar

The bitter rematch between Rep. Henry Cuellar and his former-intern-turned-progressive-challenger was riveting South Texas even before the March 1 Democratic primary. Then came an FBI raid of the congressman’s home.

While Cuellar hasn’t been charged with a crime, law enforcement officials’ extraordinary move on the congressman’s home and campaign headquarters 26 days before early voting begins has upended the race. The raid is directing a groundswell of money, momentum and powerful endorsements to Democratic rival Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old attorney who lost to Cuellar by less than 3,000 votes two years ago.

The looming faceoff between Cuellar and Cisneros in Texas — which has the first congressional primaries of the 2022 midterms — will be an early test for progressives. Liberals are eager to build their footprint in Congress and notch primary wins after a run of disappointing losses in 2021 special elections.

And the primary will be the first outlet at the ballot box for fury on the left that’s boiled over in recent weeks against Democratic moderates, including Cuellar, after a small number of centrists in Congress have put up roadblocks to key pieces of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“She has a very, very, very good chance of winning, even prior to the recent scandal that Representative Cuellar is going through,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who himself toppled a long-time incumbent as a primary challenger backed by the liberal group Justice Democrats. “She came very close the first time around. Now I expect her to get it done.”

Asked if more congressional endorsements were coming, Bowman said: “Stay tuned. You will see others. … We want to make sure we get her as much momentum as possible.”

Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, is reportedly under federal investigation as part of a long-running probe into the former Soviet nation of Azerbaijan, according to ABC News. His home and campaign office were raided by the FBI last Wednesday, though law enforcement officials and Cuellar himself have declined to comment on any details. Cuellar has said he’ll cooperate with “any investigation,” but nothing more.

Since the raid, the Texas Democrat released a defiant TV ad touting his deep ties to South Texas, signaling that he’s not backing down. Cisneros will go up on the air Tuesday with a buy — her first broadcast spot of the 2022 election.

“For South Texans, the FBI investigation into Henry Cuellar is alarming and yet there were already serious concerns about the Congressman’s long history of corruption and close ties with his corporate donors over the voters of this district,” Cisneros said in a release announcing her ad, which was first shared with POLITICO.

The ad itself, however, does not mention the FBI raid, and instead focuses on her family’s struggle to pay medical bills and her support for Medicare for All.

Cisneros had roughly $2 million less than Cuellar in her campaign account at the end of September, their most recent finance reports show, and she is going up on TV earlier than she planned, according to a person familiar with her strategy.

The FBI investigation scrambled the campaign: Cuellar launched more TV ads this weekend, after an outside group supporting him slashed its buy, and Cisneros quickly followed so he wouldn’t have the airwaves to himself.

So far, Cisneros has placed a buy worth about $60,000, according to her campaign. Cuellar has also booked about $60,000 of TV ads so far, per the media tracking firm AdImpact. Both figures are sure to grow rapidly as March 1 approaches.

The two-time liberal challenger and her campaign are working to strike a careful balance on Cuellar amid the ongoing investigation, according to multiple Democrats who described deliberations over the strategy. Rather than go straight into attack mode, Cisneros — a public defender by trade — has made limited public remarks in the five days since the FBI arrived at Cuellar’s home. Her campaign released a statement that said only that they were “closely watching” the investigation.

But since her first run in 2020, Cisneros has consistently hit Cuellar as too corrupt and beholden to corporate interests. And while she will wait for the investigation to play out before passing judgment, the raid feeds into that general theme. Her campaign has seen an uptick in fundraising, interest from volunteers eager to do voter outreach and increased consternation from voters when they connect with them via phone bank.

And under the radar, Cisneros’ campaign has worked to make sure voters are aware of the probe, spending on a Facebook ad to promote an MSNBC story about the FBI raid, according to the platform’s ad disclosure portal.

“Jessica Cisneros can win, but only if we are able to close the financial gap very quickly. Can you contribute $5 or more now to help us surge to victory?” the text of the ad reads.

Cisneros campaign has seen endorsements fly in since the raid last week, including the Texas AFL-CIO, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the Texas Organizing Project — and her team is working on locking down more. (Ocasio-Cortez’s team said her endorsement announcement for this cycle was already in the works before the FBI raid.)

Another notable new backer: the San Antonio Express-News. The paper’s editorial board announced Monday that it would endorse Cisneros, flipping from supporting Cuellar in their 2020 match up.

“Congressman Cuellar stands a very good chance of losing this seat,” said Kristen Hernandez, deputy director of campaign communications for EMILY’s List, which has twice backed Cisneros.

Meanwhile, Cuellar has begun to see some of his own political support back home shrinking. One pro-Cuellar group — which has disclosed little about itself online — pulled $179,000 worth of ads scheduled through the end of January. And several Democrats predicted there could be more to come without more answers from either Cuellar or the FBI. Still, no Democrats or Democratic-affiliated group have publicly pulled their endorsement.

“I’m just not going to have any comment on this at this point,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday, when asked if Cuellar should step aside from committees during the investigation. An official for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also declined to comment about support for Cuellar.

Privately, some senior Democrats who’ve spent years working with the veteran Blue Dog — who’s survived years of attacks as a socially conservative, border-district Democrat — say they aren’t fully counting him out.

After he beat Cisneros by less than 3,000 votes two years ago, Cuellar made a point to take the race more seriously from the start. Last month, Cuellar vowed to improve his efforts in the coming primary fight, telling POLITICO: “I’m doing my work here, and then we’ll work the campaign pretty hard.”

The district, which stretches from Laredo and snakes north toward San Antonio, is heavily Latino but saw a sharp turn to the right in 2020. Joe Biden carried it by only a few points after Hillary Clinton carried it by 20 points in 2016.

The newly drawn district would have given Biden a 7-point victory, but Republicans have still placed the district on their target list, hoping to capitalize on their growing appeal with Latino voters in South Texas.

Cisneros’ supporters say her fundraising and organizing has already picked up its pace compared with two years ago. Back then, most of the national attention — and spending — came in the final stretch of the race.

Now, the liberal challenger has grabbed the spotlight with nearly six weeks until the primary, facing a politically weakened incumbent.

“We see a clear path to victory. We are definitely going to tap into the congresswoman’s volunteer base to support Jessica,” added Ivet Contreras, press secretary for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign.

“Cuellar drew a target on his back” with his conservative voting record, added Joe Dinkin, campaigns director for the Working Family Party, which has backed Cisneros. “But the FBI investigation adds fuel to the fire” in a way that he said Cuellar’s previous voters “will have trouble ignoring.”

Nicholas Wu and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

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