Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
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.
Voting FAQ: 2022 midterms
How do I know if I'm registered to vote?
The deadline to register to vote in the 2022 primary election was Oct. 11. Check if you’re registered to vote here.
When can I vote?
Election day is Nov. 8. Early voting ended Nov. 4.
How do I know if I qualify to vote by mail?
This option is fairly limited in Texas. You’re allowed to vote by mail only if: You will be 65 or older by Election Day, you will not be in your county for the entire span of voting, including early voting, you cite a sickness or disability that prevents you from voting in person without needing personal assistance or without the likelihood of injuring your health, you’re expected to give birth within three weeks before or after Election Day or you are confined in jail but otherwise eligible (i.e., not convicted of a felony).
Are polling locations the same on election day as they are during early voting?
Not always. You’ll want to check for open polling locations with your local elections office before you head out to vote. Additionally, you can confirm with your county elections office whether election day voting is restricted to locations in your designated precinct or if you can cast a ballot at any polling place.
How can I find which polling places are near me?
County election offices are supposed to post on their websites information on polling locations for Election Day and during the early-voting period by Oct. 18. The secretary of state’s website will also have information on polling locations closer to the start of voting. However, polling locations may change, so be sure to check your county’s election website before going to vote.
What form of ID do I need to bring to vote?
You’ll need one of seven types of valid photo ID to vote in Texas: A state driver’s license, a Texas election identification certificate, a Texas personal identification card, a Texas license to carry a handgun, a U.S. military ID card with a personal photo, a U.S. citizenship certificate with a personal photo or a U.S. passport. Voters can still cast votes without those IDs if they sign a form swearing that they have a “reasonable impediment” from obtaining a proper photo ID or use a provisional ballot. Find more details here.
What can I do if I have trouble voting?
You can contact your county elections official or call the Texas Secretary of State's helpline at 1-800-252-VOTE (8683). A coalition of voting rights groups is also helping voters navigate election concerns through the 866-OUR-VOTE (687-8683) voter-protection helpline. The coalition also has hotlines available in other languages and for Texans with disabilities.
“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.