The left's first 2022 test comes in Texas
Is anyone afraid of AOC, Elizabeth and Bernie anymore?
The Left has had a rough ride of recent.
Build Back Better — the Biden administration’s generous goody bag for progressives — is stuck in the Senate without a discernible strategy for resurrection. Joe Manchin continues to reign more powerful than Bernie Sanders in crafting the policy of the possible. Even the enlightened electorate of San Francisco delivered an unmistakable repudiation of liberal dogma this week in its ouster of three “outspokenly progressive members of the city’s school board.”
So as the 2022 primary voting season begins, where has the left decided to circle its wagons in search for solace?
Far south — to a congressional district in Texas that spans from San Antonio to the Mexican border.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was there last weekend; Bernie Sanders dove in with his support this week. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley arrives this weekend and Elizabeth Warren lands on Tuesday as early voting continues ahead of Texas’ March 1 primary date.
The progressive cavalry has coalesced around repeat challenger Jessica Cisneros, a human rights attorney and daughter of Mexican immigrants who is not yet 30 years old. In 2020, Cisneros came within 3.6% — about 2,700 votes — of ousting longterm moderate incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (pronounced Qweigh-yar) in Texas’ 28th Congressional District.
The Democratic primary rematch now serves as the first test of liberal muscle in 2022, set before a gloomy political backdrop for Democrats almost everywhere.
Cisneros earned similar backing from progressives last time when the race concluded just before the coronavirus morphed into a full-borne national pandemic.
So what’s different this round?
There are several reorienting factors.
One is that this is a midterm election year, where turnout is expected to drop off precipitously from the 2020 presidential fracas, especially given that Sanders is not personally on a ballot to rev up the faithful with his well-organized foot-soldiers and Donald Trump is no longer the active, perpetual threat sitting inside the White House. A less engaged liberal base producing fewer voters is good news for the incumbent.
A second upside for Cuellar: The redistricting process slightly reshaped the district’s populous, carving out Hidalgo County, a place Cisneros carried in 2020.
The third factor benefiting the incumbent: A third Democratic candidate, Tannya Benavides, isn’t in a position to win, but if she scrapes even 2%-3% away from Cisneros, it could provide Cuellar just enough cushion in a close contest.
The bad news, and potential wildcard, for Cuellar is the F.B.I. raid of his home in January around a hazy corruption probe investigating whether he’s received “anything of value” from business or foreign leaders, potentially from a tiny Muslim country. It’s unknown if Cuellar is even a target of this probe and the Department of Justice won’t say who is. All Cuellar will say is that he’s cooperating and that did nothing wrong.
But in pure political terms, news of F.B.I. agents scouring your opponent’s house is a gift from the gods of fortunate timing.
It makes it much easier to come out and say …. well, exactly what Cisneros did on “Bloc Party”, a podcast rub by the Justice Democrats, the liberal cohort that helped propel AOC to victory in 2018.
“He’s corrupt,” Cisneros said of Cuellar. “It’s because of all of that corporate PAC money.”
Justice Democrats are reinforcing that message with an advertising blitz painting the 66-year-old Cuellar as corrupt D.C. politician who takes donations from Koch Industries and has been consistently questioned about his contributions.
The Cuellar-Cisneros race is a generational, ideological and ethical clash all wrapped into one. With the shadow of corruption hanging over his head, Cuellar looks wounded.
And yet he still must be considered the favorite.
“He’s definitely the favorite, but the election can’t come soon enough for him. Because every day Jessica’s making up time. She’s catching up quickly, so the sooner the better for him,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to the Sanders’ 2020 campaign who focused on the Latino vote and works on Texas races.
Facing a gaping resource deficit, Cisneros is tapping the power of progressive luminaries to gin up media attention and close the gap. AOC’s appearance in San Antonio last weekend drew a reported crowd 1,200 and flurry of local and national news accounts.
Rocha says if anyone can propel liberal voters to the polls, it’s AOC. He said that during Sanders’ 2020 race, his polling data found that AOC actually motivated younger white voters slightly more significantly than young brown and Black voters.
“In our surveys she motivated younger white voters, 3 or 4 points more than young brown voters, which were still over 80%. She is a perfect person to bring down to motivate,” Rocha said.
Warren’s appearance on Tuesday — a week from the primary — is designed to do the same thing: Remind progressives that midterms in the earliest of March matter too.
“The Warren - Sanders - AOC endorsements alone do not move the needle - but the free news coverage in the expensive San Antonio media market does,” says Keith Rosendahl, Cuellar’s former campaign manager and president of the Dallas-based Strike Team Political Strategies. “Back-to-back-to-back weeks of national endorsements will definitely put the name Jessica Cisneros into the ears of the coveted dialed-in 'super voter' as early voting starts to take shape."
Which is to say, if Cisneros pulls off an upset, the Organized Left will rightly deserve credit and Republicans will begin howling about the party’s continued leftward drift.
Sylvia Bruni, a Democratic chairwoman in Laredo staying publicly neutral in the contest, admitted that a Cisneros victory would trigger concern about “what comes next.”
“I frankly would be concerned too about our own conservative Democrats,” Bruni told me. “There’s an assumption that if you’re a liberal they’re going to come after your wallet. I don’t believe that, but we’re definitely going to need to work on, I don’t know if it’s damage control, but preempt the kind of stories that would come if someone like Jessica comes into place.”
On the other hand, if Cuellar survives it will be just as easily framed as the Left taking another lump. And for the Democratic Party’s moderate wing, it might provide validation for curbing Biden’s agenda, trimming expensive policy goals and slow-rolling ambitions for the remainder of the year.
It’s, of course, unwise, to draw oversized conclusions about a single race in south Texas. But the start of primary season is usually where new political narratives begin to form.
The Left is sure in need of one.