Access to abortion has long been a pillar of the Democratic Party, but the party has also argued it’s a big tent and inclusive of those with different views including on this issue. Still, anti-abortion Democrats have become a much rarer breed in Congress over the past decade as the party largely coalesced around unequivocal support for such a right.
And now that the end of the 1973 landmark ruling is all but certain, Cuellar is facing a much different reelection race against Democratic opponent Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who for a second time is seeking to defeat him.
It’s unclear how exactly the draft opinion might move the needle in a super tight race. Cuellar has been a staple in Texas politics for decades and his views on abortion have been well-known for years. But he’s running for a 10th term at a fraught time when tens of thousands of Texans stand to lose their right to an abortion.
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Texas has been one of the most restrictive states when it comes to abortion access, banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The GOP-led state legislature also passed a “trigger law” that would take effect 30 days after a reversal on Roe v. Wade by the high court and prohibit nearly all abortions.
The runoff in Texas’ 28th District could offer the first real glimpse this election cycle of voters mobilizing against the threats to abortion rights and the end of Roe.
“For years, Henry Cuellar has repeatedly joined Republicans in voting in favor of the Hyde Amendment, voting to defund Planned Parenthood, and voting for numerous federal bans on abortion,” Cisneros said in a statement. “This race goes beyond South Texas. We know our majority in Congress is at stake and Henry Cuellar could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights in this country.”
Cisneros, a 28-year-old human rights attorney, unsuccessfully challenged Cuellar in 2020 and is seeking a rematch in the South Texas district that runs partially along the U.S.-Mexico border. While the two have divergent views on other key issues like immigration and labor rights, abortion has quickly emerged as the main contrast.
During the March primary, Cuellar led Cisneros by just 949 votes, but since no candidates secured a majority, they will square off again in a May 24 runoff as the top two vote-getters. The third candidate, who won’t be competing this time around, won about 2,300 votes in March.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, left, and Rep. Henry Cuellar, right, attend a campaign event.The Associated Press
While Cuellar underperformed from his 2020 primary margins, he still came out narrowly on top even after headlines that the FBI raided his home in January. He said he’ll cooperate with law enforcement and has denied any wrongdoing, though not many details have come to light.
While there’s typically limited polling in specific House races, a recent survey showed where Texans stand on abortion access. A poll released this week by the University of Texas at Austin – but conducted prior to the leak – found 78% of voters in the state believe abortion should be legal in some form.
Cisneros has since sought to ramp up the pressure on Cuellar and those supporting him. She called on House Democrats’ top leaders to withdraw their endorsements in light of the Supreme Court news. But he’s not backing down and neither is leadership.
Cuellar, 66, has had a long record of opposing abortion in Congress. In 2017, he voted in support of making the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion services, permanent. And last September, he was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.
He used to be part of a larger group of Democrats who bucked the mainstream of the party and identified as “pro-life.” But now, he’s the lone Democrat in the House to hold that view, though a couple remain in the Senate.
In a statement following the leak, Cuellar described the draft ruling as something that will “further divide the country.” He defended his long-time record on abortion but said he opposes any outright bans of the procedure and explained instances where he makes exceptions.
“As a lifelong Catholic, I have always been pro-life. As a Catholic, I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban. There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother,” Cuellar said.
“My faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would criminalize teenage victims of rape and incest. That same faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would make a mother choose between her life and her child’s,” he added. “My faith is clear: Abortions must be rare & safe.”
The high-profile primary runoff is drawing even more national attention in the final weeks with the reality that Roe will likely no longer be in place by the summer.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was already involved in the primary prior to the leaked draft opinion, has been soliciting donations this week on behalf of Cisneros.
Cisneros is someone who “has a real chance to beat him and who will fight for a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her life. So if you’re mad when you listen to this,” donate to her campaign, Warren said in an MSNBC interview this week. “Don’t talk to me about how frustrated you are because you don’t like a particular constellation of Democrats.”
Cuellar, meanwhile, still has the top three in House leadership behind him, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. While most are laying low with their support for the nine-term congressman, others are still publicly going to bat for him and mounting a fierce defense.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina traveled to Texas on Wednesday and attended a rally in San Antonio to drum up support for Cuellar. Clyburn argued that a big-tent party needs to be accepting of Democrats with some divergent views and bemoaned any party purity tests on abortion.
Cuellar is part of Clyburn’s whip team, a vote-counting job that’s even more critical for Democrats with such a small House majority that only has room for several defections without needing Republican support.
“When people tell you you need to agree on everything, I do not agree with Henry Cuellar on everything,” Clyburn said at the rally. “We need to sit down with people who we do not agree with and try to find common ground, to do what is necessary to move this country forward.”
Outside groups are also kicking it into higher gear over the past week.
After Clyburn’s visit, progressive climate group Sunrise Movement and abortion rights organization NARAL Pro-Choice America made tens of thousands of calls in support of Cisneros. EMILY’s List, a group that supports female candidates who are pro-abortion rights, has also partnered with NARAL on digital ads and mail. The group has played a role in bolstering Cisneros since she first ran against Cuellar in 2020.
“Our position on Henry Cuellar is clear, and this is the work we’ve been dedicated to doing for decades: electing Democratic pro-choice women up and down the ballot,” says Danni Wang, EMILY’s List deputy director of campaign communications who’s helping the Cisneros campaign. “She would be a critical vote for the Women’s Health Protection Act and broadening abortion access and reproductive health care in general.”