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Cuellar Defeats Cisneros In South Texas Primary Runoff, Recount Shows

Henry Cuellar, the embattled nine-term congressman from South Texas in the political fight of his career, won his Democratic primary runoff against a young progressive opponent, overcoming fierce attacks on his record and an F.B.I. investigation with a last-minute push from top national Democrats.

Mr. Cuellar, whose victory was called by The Associated Press after a nail-bitingly close May 24 runoff led to a recount, defeated Jessica Cisneros, a lawyer who was once an intern for the congressman. Unofficial results released by the Texas Democratic Party showed he clinched the nomination by only 289 votes.

His survival in a rare primary runoff for the House seat representing Texas’ 28th Congressional District notched a narrow win for moderate Democrats who had viewed his race as a proxy battle for a broader direction for the party.

The two candidates were backed by Democratic stars from their respective centrist and progressive corners, and they drew sharp ideological distinctions between each other on many of their party’s top issues, including abortion, immigration, the energy industry and the environment.

Soon after the recount totals were released, Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee, expressed anger with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Democratic leaders for refusing to support Ms. Cisneros.

“The party establishment would rather protect one of their own than deliver results for Democratic voters and South Texas families,” Ms. Rojas said in a statement. “It’s disgraceful and I am deeply worried about November.”

Mr. Cuellar, 66, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House, represented the old guard. He emphasized the federal dollars he had brought to the area, his efforts to harden border security and his firm stance against abortion, citing his Catholic faith and the role it plays in his border region.

Mr. Cuellar once held “A” rating from the N.R.A., but that dropped in 2020 after he voted in favor of expanded background checks. The runoff was held the same day that a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at a school in Uvalde, Texas, which lies in a bordering district.

He has supported more oil drilling and often votes with Republicans on energy policy. His tough talk on immigration sparked anger and concern among immigrant-rights activists, who said he was playing into dangerous right-wing characterizations about immigrants and the border.

Earlier this year, the F.B.I. raided Mr. Cuellar’s home in the border city of Laredo as part of an ongoing investigation that appears to be tied to a probe into the political influence of Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic.

Ms. Cisneros, 28, like Mr. Cuellar, is a Laredo native and the child of Mexican immigrants. She first challenged the longtime congressman in 2020 when she was fresh out of law school, and came within 3.6 percentage points of pushing him out. In March, Ms. Cisneros fell fewer than 1,000 votes short of Mr. Cuellar’s total, forcing the two into a runoff.

Ms. Cisneros, who has worked with asylum-seeking migrant families, approached immigration and border policy from a humanitarian perspective. She framed abortion as a health care issue, and championed progressive causes such as Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage and the Green New Deal.

In early May, the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, appeared to give Ms. Cisneros a bump of momentum late in the race. Mr. Cuellar was the only House Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would have guaranteed the right to abortion through federal law.

Mr. Cuellar’s district runs from Laredo to San Antonio, and redistricting changes made it slightly more Democratic, with more voters from Bexar County. The district dropped from 76.9 percent Hispanic to 75.3 percent, but a slight rise in white voters was expected to help Ms. Cisneros if those new voters were San Antonio liberals.

Ms. Cisneros stumped with progressive firebrands — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Ms. Cisneros was recruited by the Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee that had placed a full-page ad in a local newspaper looking for candidates. Laredo community leaders submitted her name.

Mr. Cuellar received the endorsements of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who recorded robocalls for him, as well as Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

The race was contentious at times.

Ms. Cisneros criticized Mr. Cuellar as a corrupt politician. In the final stretch of the contest, billboards appeared in Laredo that made allegations about Ms. Cisneros’s policy stances as well as her personal life, calling her a “home wrecker.” Mr. Cuellar denied he had anything to do with the billboards and said he did not condone them.

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