Cuellar, who is the extremely rare Democrat to have ever been endorsed by the radically anti-tax Club for Growth, is also no stranger to crossing party lines. In 2000, he supported George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and in 2018 he came to the aid of a home state colleague, John Carter, during the Republican’s competitive reelection fight in the 31st District.
While Cuellar inflamed national Democrats, though, he went over a decade without attracting a serious primary foe until Cisneros decided to challenge him from the left last cycle, but she quickly proved she could raise a serious amount of money for what turned out to be a pricey and nasty race. Cisneros went after Cuellar for his conservative voting record, with one ad declaring, “Not only did Cuellar vote for Trump’s wall twice, but he’s taken over $100,000 from corporations that build facilities and cages to detain families.” EMILY’s List also spent $1 million to back her, while many labor groups were in Cisneros’ corner as well.
The congressman, meanwhile, ran a race that could have easily passed for a GOP campaign against the woman his team derided as “the Socialist Cisneros.” He argued that Cisneros’ support for environmental protection policies would destroy local oil industry jobs, and he aired a commercial arguing that she “supports allowing minors to have an abortion without parents’ knowledge.”
Cuellar and his allies also tried to portray Cisneros, who was born and raised in south Texas and returned home after briefly practicing law in New York, as an outsider; one particularly ugly mailer from a pro-Cuellar group charged that the challenger was “bringing New York flavor to Texas,” complete with pictures of “NYC Pizza” and “NYC Bagel.”
Cuellar benefited from spending from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and, remarkably, the Koch network, the first Democrat ever to do so. Republican voters also likely pushed him across the finish line in what turned out to be a tight race: Texas does not have party registration, which left GOP voters who didn’t participate in Donald Trump’s uncompetitive primary free to vote in the Democratic race.
Cisneros kicked off her new campaign Thursday arguing that not only did Cuellar remain too conservative, he’d also done a poor job aiding his constituents during the pandemic: She specifically took him to task for helping obtain coronavirus testing kits for the district last year that turned out to be defective.
Cisneros’ entry into the race attracted far more attention than her launch did two years ago, but that’s not the only way that the 2022 primary will be different from last cycle’s fight. Perhaps most importantly, no one knows what this constituency will look like after the GOP legislature finishes redistricting, much less whether mapmakers will try to make it more Republican. And even if the new 28th District doesn’t change much, Trump’s gains last year could leave some Democrats nervous about losing Cuellar as their nominee.
One other factor is that while the 2020 race was a duel between Cuellar and Cisneros, next year’s race could be more crowded. One other contender, educator Tannya Benavides, kicked off her own campaign in mid-June: While Benavides brought in just over $10,000 over the next few weeks, her presence on the ballot could make it tougher for anyone to win the majority of the vote they’d need to avoid a primary runoff.
Cueller, for his part, raised $240,000 during the second quarter of 2021 and ended June with $1.7 million in the bank. That’s considerably less than the $3 million he had available at this point in the 2020 cycle, but it does give him a big head start ahead of his rematch with Cisneros.