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The expensive and unscrupulous campaign to keep an anti-abortion Democrat in Congress
On September 24, 2021, the House of Representatives passed the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill to codify Roe v. Wade. The bill would preserve abortion rights for millions of women if, as expected, the Supreme Court overturns Roe in the coming weeks. It was opposed by 210 Republicans and one Democrat: Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX).
Tonight, Cuellar faces a run-off election against Democratic challenger Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney, activist, and supporter of abortion rights.
It is expected to be a close contest. In the March 2020 primary, Cuellar defeated Cisneros by a margin of 51.8% to 48.2%, securing the nomination. In the March 2022 primary, Cuellar received 48.7% to Cisneros' 46.6%. (A third candidate, Tannya Benavides, received the remaining votes.) Since neither candidate secured 50% of the vote, a run-off was scheduled for May 24.
Tonight’s results is a case study in the power of incumbency. Cuellar has been in Congress since 2005 and his reelection campaign has attracted extensive support from wealthy donors, corporate PACs, and Democratic leadership. Will it be enough to convince Democratic voters to overlook Cuellar's policy positions?
Since the March primary, an odd coalition of Super PACs, backed by a handful of very wealthy people, have spent millions on dishonest and misleading advertisements promoting Cuellar and attacking Cisneros.
A Super PAC called Mainstream Democrats was established on February 10, 2022. The group's barebones website says it "was founded as the only Democratic group with the courage to consistently defend mainstream Democrats and defeat extreme candidates whose stated goal is 'to overthrow' the Democratic Party."
Is Cuellar a mainstream Democrat? Cuellar opposes abortion rights but a recent poll found that 80% of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 93% of Democrats oppose overturning Roe. Cuellar also received an "A" rating from the NRA, an organization that adamantly opposes stricter gun laws, and 81% of Democrats support stricter gun laws.
Nevertheless, in May, Mainstream Democrats spent over $750,000 in ads supporting Cuellar. These ads are designed to make Cuellar seem "mainstream" by misleading voters. For example, one ad by Mainstream Democrats bemoans that "women's rights [are] under attack by extremists" and claims that "Democrat Henry Cuellar makes it clear that he opposes a ban on abortion."
As proof of that claim, the ad cites a May 4 article published by U.S. News and World Report, which in turn cites a press release by the Cuellar campaign. In that press release Cuellar clearly states that he "does not support abortion" and favors a total ban with narrow exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother.
Major contributors to Mainstream Democrats include Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, who donated $500,000 to the group. Another major contributor is Deborah Simon, heir to a shopping mall fortune, who donated $250,000. Simon is known as an adamant supporter of abortion rights and a significant donor to Planned Parenthood.
Mainstream Democrats spending on the race has been dwarfed by spending from United Democracy Project, a new Super PAC created by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The name of the group, United Democracy Project, is ironic since AIPAC has endorsed 109 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
AIPAC defended its endorsement of Republican objectors by saying it was laser-focused on America's relationship with Israel:
Our goal is to make America’s friendship with Israel so robust, so certain, so broadly based, and so dependable that even the deep divisions of American politics can never imperil that relationship and the ability of the Jewish state to defend itself. In an increasingly polarized environment, sustained support from both parties makes our alliance with Israel stronger.
In April and May, United Democracy Project spent $1.85 million on ads supporting Cuellar and attacking Cisneros. None of these ads, however, mention Israel. Several ads, however, contain misleading attacks.
One of the ads, for example, claims that Cisneros is "backed by groups" that support "cutting police spending." On the screen, however, only the words "Jessica Cisneros" and "cut police spending" appear.
It's unclear what groups United Democracy Project is referring to since the only citation is FEC.gov, a government website that includes every political donation made to every candidate.
This specious claim is then used to justify another United Democracy Project attack ad, which claims that Cisneros would cost Texas "thousands of jobs" because lower police funding would mean fewer jobs for police officers.
All of this is a somewhat toned-down version of Cuellar's own attacks. Cuellar claims Cisneros "would defund the police." He makes these claims even though Cisneros "does not actually support defunding the police."
Corporations take a side
Most major corporations have not weighed in on the leaked Supreme Court opinon that would overturn Roe. But numerous corporations have shown no reluctance supporting Cuellar in his primary campaign against Cisneros. For the 2022 campaign, more than one-third of the Cuellar campaign's $2.7 million war chest comes from corporate PACs.
Cuellar recieves extensive support from the fossil fuel industry including the American Petroleum Institute ($1,000), Chevron ($10,000), Conoco Phillips ($11,000), Exxon Mobil ($5,000), Halliburton ($10,000), Hess ($15,000), Koch Industries ($8,500), Marathon Oil ($3,500), Marathon Petroleum ($7,500), Occidental Petroleum ($7,500), Phillips 66 ($5,000), Southern Company ($6,000), and US Energy ($5,000).
Cuellar has a 50% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters — the lowest of any House Democrat. He routinely opposes environmental legislation.
Other corporate PAC donors to Cuellar include AT&T ($5,000), Comcast ($1,500), Dell ($5,000), Wendy's ($5,000), Toyota ($7,000), and Walmart ($2,500).
Cisneros does not accept corporate PAC money. She has also signed the "No Fossil Fuel Money" pledge, "which prohibits candidates from accepting contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and political action committees."
Democratic leadership takes a side
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed Cuellar, saying she supports all her incumbent members. He also has the backing of the second-most powerful Democrat in the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
The third-ranking House Democrat, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), campaigned with Cuellar earlier this month. "We have a big-tent party, and if we’re gonna be a big-tent party, we got to be a big-tent party," Clyburn said, “This whole notion that you’ve got to agree with everybody on everything is pretty sophomoric to me.”
After the Supreme Court opinion overturn Roe leaked, Cisneros called on Democratic leadership to recind their endorsements. "With the House majority on the line, [Cuellar] could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk," Cisneros said.
Cisneros has won the support of six members of Congress, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). She is also backed by Emily's List, NARAL, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Texas AFL-CIO.