March 11, 2020
Best Texas Legislature Campaign
Best Texas Challenger Campaign
Best Texas Congress Campaign
Texas Incumbent Campaign
In the wake of a Texas primary election that the minority party clearly won, there's no shortage of irony in the fact that the incumbent lawmaker who had the best campaign is a Democrat who's voted more with the Republicans than all but maybe one or two of his Democratic colleagues in Washington.
A former state representative who served a Republican governor's secretary of state, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo had always been strong on the stump as a Blue Dog Democrat who unseated an incumbent in the Democratic primary in 2004 after almost stealing a congressional seat from the GOP two years earlier. Cuellar had run unopposed in four of the last five primary elections while crushing the lone first-round challenger during that span of time with 90 percent of the vote four years ago. But Cuellar proved to be at his best in the face of extreme adversity in his seventh re-election race when he became the number one whipping post for progressives from the Mexican border to the District of Columbia in a fight for survival with primary rival Jessica Cisneros of Laredo.
Cisneros had been recruited for the Congressional District 28 competition by the Justice Democrats that has U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City as its superstar figurehead. The 26-year-old Cisneros had been a border town version of AOC - the wave making rookie representative who won a seat in a district that includes the Bronx and Queens in 2018 at the age of 30 as an unapologetic socialist Democrat. AOC had ousted a 20-year U.S. House veteran who chaired the Democratic Caucus in the lower house of Congress in the biggest upset by far in the primary election two years ago. Cisneros - as an advocate for Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and other positions dear to the far left's heart - would follow up the historic AOC victory with one of her own in a battle with an incumbent who'd been an outcast in the eyes of Democratic Party loyalists since the day he arrived on Capitol Hill.
Cisneros appeared to have juggernaut momentum from the outset of the race in the heavily-Democratic district where she armed her campaign with endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren when both of the presidential contenders were surging. Cisneros had Julian Castro in her camp as well as the former San Antonio mayor who'd served in the Barack Obama cabinet before a bid for the White House himself in 2020. A long list of party activists and local elected officials rallied behind Cisneros along with groups that represent organized labor, teachers, environmentalists, gays and liberals in general. Cisneros, who's an attorney like Cuellar, portrayed herself as simple product of the working class in a quixotic fight against a machine that she confronted with one of her own that materialized almost overnight.
But Cisneros demonstrated that she was for real when she'd raised almost a half-million dollars by the end of September and doubled that amount in the next three months for a war chest that she would load up with more than $1.3 million by the middle of February. The challenger looked like an absolute nightmare on paper for an incumbent who hadn't faced a real test at the polls since he beat Ciro Rodriguez by 13 points in a primary rematch 14 years ago after knocking him out of Congress in 2004 after the district had been redrawn the previous year.
Cisneros ran like he was losing - not only rising to the level of the competition but upping the ante at every turn en route to rounding up more than $1.7 million. While Cuellar had spent more than twice as much as Cisneros heading into the final three weeks before the vote, he couldn't afford to be frugal with a challenger branding him on a daily basis as President Donald Trump's favorite Democrat. Cisneros contended that the incumbent had voted with Trump 70 percent of the time - an accusation that was a bit of stretch when considering that the president doesn't actually have a vote in Congress.
The message was brutal nonetheless in a district where Hillary Clinton had defeated Trump by almost 20 points in 2016 - and it could have been fatal for the incumbent if he didn't have the ultimate weapon to counter the criticism with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a loyal ally. Pelosi didn't just give the endangered incumbent a shout out in a tweet like the president had done for a trio of GOP congressional contenders in Texas. Pelosi dove into the heart of the battle with a personal appearance on Cuellar's behalf and boatloads of praise at a news conference in Laredo just 10 days before the primary election at the border city's annual George Washington celebration.
That could have been the game-changer in a district where Cisneros carried the second and third population centers with 67 percent of the vote in Bexar County and 53 percent in Hidalgo County. The challenger fared better than the incumbent in Wilson and La Salle counties as well while Cuellar prevailed Starr, Atascosa and Starr counties. But Cuellar effectively won the battle at home in Webb County with 55 percent of the vote there while putting the progressive antagonist to rest with almost 52 percent district wide on election night. Cuellar can put it on cruise control now with Laredo Republican Sandra Whitten waiting in the wings as the GOP nominee in a district where the incumbent can expect to reap about two out of every three votes in November.
The Best of the Election selections for 2020 Texas primary will be unveiled this month in separate installments.