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Recount shows Rep. Henry Cuellar beat Jessica Cisneros by 289 votes

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WASHINGTON — With every ballot counted for the second time in a fiercely contested South Texas Democratic primary runoff, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar has survived his third bout with progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, winning by 289 votes.

“As I said on election night, ‘the margin will hold’ — and it has not only held but grown,” Cuellar said in a statement. “It is now time to come together and win the General Election in November.”

Cisneros conceded on Tuesday, blaming her loss on “a corrupt political machine” supporting Cuellar that included “Republican-funded Super PACs, the Koch brothers, private prisons, Big Oil, the Chamber of Commerce, dark money groups, Big Pharma, and nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment in Washington.”

“With this close of a margin, it’s clear that without their aggressive interference in the lives of South Texas families, we would have won,” Cisneros said.

Related: Texas primary runoff: Who won and who lost

Now Cuellar faces what most expect to be his toughest general election fight in the nearly two decades he has been in office, as Republicans pour resources into turning South Texas red in what is shaping up to be a nightmare midterm for Democrats.

Still, political scientists say Cuellar will again be the favorite — and the primary showed why.

Cuellar hung on despite a series of political setbacks, including an FBI search of his home and campaign headquarters — and still prevailed over a well-funded opponent campaigning to take down the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House just as the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“He has shown an uncanny ability to survive,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas San Antonio.

‘American, Texan, then a Democrat’

The final count in the rematch with Cisneros marked the end of a marquee Democratic brawl.

The race drew national attention and millions of dollars as it emerged as a key proxy battle between House leadership and the progressive wing of the party. It was the biggest nail-biter election the district had seen since the longtime Laredo congressman was first elected in 2004, ousting an incumbent after a recount vaulted him to victory by 58 votes.

Cuellar now faces Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who is one of three Latina Republicans the GOP hopes will flip a trio of South Texas districts that have long been held by Democrats.

Political ratings organizations predict the race will be tight, with both the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball calling it a tossup. That’s despite the fact that the district was redrawn to include more Democratic voters. State data showed President Joe Biden would have carried the district by seven points in 2020.

Political scientists say Cuellar could end up being collateral damage, with voters angry over the Biden administration’s handling of inflation, immigration and other issues. If Republicans are able to successfully tie Cuellar to those issues, they could pull off an upset, experts say.

But that could prove difficult, as Cuellar is far from Biden on many issues. He was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Biden administration’s handling of the border, for instance, and last week slammed the president for calling on U.S. oil companies to produce more to alleviate gas prices.

“Let me be clear, I fully support the oil and gas industry and my track record in Congress demonstrates this,” Cuellar said in a statement. “From lifting the ban on crude oil exports to eliminating unnecessary and burdensome regulations for small refiners, I work every day to lower the price at the pump. I will continue to do so.”

Cuellar also held steady on his most conservative stances throughout the primary, even when they put him in a lonely position in his party, including maintaining his opposition to abortion. He has repeatedly told voters: “I am an American, Texan, then a Democrat — in that order.”

“He made a conscious decision in the primary to be true to himself and his past positions,” said Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “He didn’t try to walk back anything. He doubled down on everything from police and law enforcement to the oil and gas sector, to immigration and abortion.”

Progressives say he’s done little to win their support, however, which he may well need in a district where Democratic voters were evenly split on whether he was the right candidate.

“It’s an argument we’ve been hearing forever that somehow we’re better off giving voters a choice between Republican and Republican light, rather than making a distinction of what Democrats stand for,” said Aaron Chappell, political director at Our Revolution, a progressive group that backed Cisneros. “Cuellar has done everything he can to not win progressive support and we would have no intention of working for him in November, and I just don’t see what his appeal to any progressive voter would be.”

ben.wermund@chron.com


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