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Why are Democrats still backing a congressman out of step with the party?

Henry Cuellar is well to the right of his party colleagues but is likely to keep his seat in November's midterm elections.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – As the Democratic representative for Texas’s 28th congressional district, Henry Cuellar, 66, is far to the right of his party and its voters. He has been in office since 2005 and is known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. He is anti-abortion and voted against the codification of Roe vs Wade – that is to say, the passage by Congress of a federal law that would guarantee the right to abortion in all 50 states. When the draft Supreme Court decision leaked in early May – the one that, if it were not a draft, would strip Americans of their right to an abortion at the federal level – Cuellar was asked how such a leak might impact his re-election campaign. “There’s always issues that come up,” he said.

Abortion is not the only issue on which Cuellar veers rightwards of mainstream Democratic politics. He has also taken money from the National Rifle Association, which has given him an “A rating” for his opposition to gun control. According to FiveThirtyEight’s “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump,” in the 115th Congress (2017-19), Cuellar voted in line with the former president more than 68 per cent of the time.

It is unsurprising, then, that he found his seat challenged by a younger, more progressive politician. In 2020, he narrowly beat Jessica Cisneros, then 26, in a Democratic primary. Texas’s 28th district, in the south of the state, near the border with Mexico, is a solidly Democratic district, but it is not one of the country’s more progressive: Joe Biden won it by four points in the 2020 presidential election. Still, some voters there look at Cuellar and see an establishment politician no longer concerned with helping the people who put him in office.

Cisneros challenged him again this year. During the course of this primary election, Cuellar’s home was raided by the FBI. The raid was reportedly part of an investigation into Azerbaijan and the US businessmen thought to have ties with that country. The FBI did not clear him of wrongdoing before election day, despite ads claiming the contrary.

Here is something else that happened before the election in late May: the Democratic Party leadership threw its support behind Cuellar. They went “to the mat” for their colleague, in the words of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Cisneros booster who herself got into office by challenging a senior Democratic lawmaker.

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What did going to the mat look like? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged her support for him. Both she and the House whip, Jim Clyburn, reportedly recorded robocalls – pre-recorded phone messages – in Cuellar’s favour; the latter appeared at a Get Out the Vote rally for Cuellar. Groups such as the Mainstream Democrats Political Action Committee, founded by LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, worked to boost Cuellar too, to the tune of more than $750,000. Their focus, they insisted, was on supporting “electable” Democrats.

It should not need to be said, but – nobody is owed a seat in Congress. Certainly, nobody is owed two decades in Congress. Henry Cuellar is not the only person in the 28th district who can represent it in Congress. And the idea that Democratic leadership should throw its support behind the people who have the job because they already have the job suggests they have confused keeping the job with doing the job.

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But there is another galling component to this. If the former president Donald Trump was the threat to our democracy that the Democratic leadership said he was, why was it backing the person who voted with him almost 70 per cent of the time? If Democrats’ answer to the attack on reproductive choice and gun control – which they acknowledge are attacks, and are real and existential – is to encourage Americans to vote for Democrats, why is the Democratic leadership backing someone who does not meaningfully support either of those things?

Cuellar appears to have narrowly won this race, too, although Cisneros is asking for a recount. Cuellar will likely keep his seat and return to his job in Washington DC, where, if past is prologue, he will not support the right to an abortion, or meaningful gun control, or break with aspiring authoritarians. But he will have kept his job. Perhaps, for Democratic leadership, that is enough.

[See also: Everything you want to know about the 2022 US midterm elections]