Democrats failed to dethrone “King of Laredo” Henry Cuellar, now they hope he will continue to rule

The 2022 midseason got off to a subpar start for Democrat Henry Cuellar. He already faced a tough main challenge from a well-funded opponent for a district always targeted by Republicans in the fall. Then the FBI searched his home.

He watched as high-profile Democrats either turned their backs on him or backed his Democratic challenger.

But despite being forced into a runoff, Cuellar survived.

And some of the same Democrats who actively campaigned against him earlier this year are now praying that he continues to thrive.

If he succeeds, given the circumstances, it could be a bit amazing.

When Jessica Cisneros decided to run for Cuellar for the second time in two election cycles, Cuellar’s team knew things were serious. With little money and attribution the first time, she had come within striking distance. This time she had money and endorsements from heavyweights like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

In January, the FBI publicly raided his home, leaving him largely unable to provide details as to why numerous boxes have been carried out of his suburban home to date. His lawyer later claimed the Justice Department said Cuellar was not a target of the investigation, which linked deals in Azerbaijan, The Daily Beast reported at the time. Over time, footage of the raid was shown in campaign ads against him — raising questions among voters.

After that, neither Cuellar nor his progressive opponent got 50% in the primary, and the contest went into an agonizing two-and-a-half-month runoff, which he won by nearly 300 votes.

And then, this summer, the Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade dejected, and Cuellar’s stance as a lonely House Democrat who is openly anti-abortion has been in the spotlight more than ever.

It’s not the kind of year that puts a Democrat on the road to success. Even more so in a region like South Texas, where Republicans, emboldened by their gains among Latino voters in the last election, have funneled in money for their candidates, including Cuellar’s GOP opponent Cassy Garcia.

Clinging to his notoriety and status as the “King of Laredo,” Cuellar somehow predicted that he’d do well this November.

As Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project, put it in an interview, “I wouldn’t bet against Cuellar.”

As his Democratic peers in similar voting positions have watched their chances fluctuate throughout the year, the Democratic Congressional Committee has not included Cuellar on its “frontliner” list of Democrats at Most Risk — nor is his seat on any independent ranking ever on Republican Territory likes lists like the Cook Political Report, which ranks the competition as “lean dem.”

Many of the DCCC’s frontliners are made up of moderates like Cuellar who hail from swing districts like Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), Sanford Bishop (D-GA) or Jared Golden (D-ME), who are also members of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition in Congress with Cuellar.

Of course anything can happen. Garcia is well endowed and Republicans have made tangible gains in the region. Districts like Cuellar’s are also notoriously difficult to interrogate, with low connectivity, language barriers, mixed immigration status, and more.

But there are a number of reasons why Cuellar — and ultra-moderate in the House of Representatives — is likely able to draw level with voters in this light-blue neighborhood.

He is a staunch advocate of increased border protection. He is known for bringing much needed funds back to the area. He is not very comfortable with President Biden and has been open about former President Trump’s politics in a way that other Democrats have not been. And his connections in the city run deep; his brother Martin is the sheriff while his sister Rosie is the former county tax collector.

As Blank puts it, Cuellar is “a good district fit,” and voters don’t have to think much to vote for a congressman they’ve elected nine times.

“For all the problems that Democrats may or may not have in South Texas, Henry Cuellar is not at the center of those problems,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans are making it easy for the congressman. In ads, the GOP has blasted him as a corrupt, out-of-touch politician who deserves the boot.

“Time for Henry Cuellar to answer questions. The FBI is asking. Raid his house. Assess ties to any government in the Middle East,” the National Republican Congressional Committee said in a complaint.

Another NRCC advertisement included claims that Cuellar “does it for the power, money and prestige” and that Cuellar “tasted the good life, lived almost like a king” giving voters the scraps off his table offers.

An ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, another Republican-leaning PAC, insisted that Cuellar “really” lives in his DC residence and pointed to a number of amenities said to be included in the condominium building, such as a 24-hour -Concierge and a fitness center (none of these). which isn’t all that unusual for DC condominiums).

“He went to Washington. Forget us,” sounds the narrator.

And national conservatives are optimistic about Garcia’s chances, though Democrats have tried to pin her down as a threat to Social Security and public health. A GOP strategist told The Daily Beast they were confident Cuellar’s standing in the district was shaky, explaining, “He’s struggling … I think his image has become quite unpopular in the district.”

Blank pointed out that the Democrats in that district may need to do more to be successful than just attacking Garcia’s political positions. They need to push for a much higher turnout than in years past, he said.

As Republicans invest more, the South Texas GOP base is becoming increasingly mobilized. That means Democrats like Cuellar must work to increase turnout to keep up with energetic GOP voters, some of whom may not have voted in previous elections.

Ed Espinoza, president of Progress Texas, also told The Daily Beast that Democrats need to be aware that they are capitalizing on their energy and investment in South Texas, even if Republicans aren’t explicitly stealing seats just yet.

“South Texas is not a Democratic base area. The Latino community in general is not a grassroots community. Part of it is Grassroots Democracy and part of it is Swing. Part of it is conservative, and it’s everywhere,” he said.

If the grassroots work in counties like Cuellar’s isn’t kept going, Democrats could pay the price in a future election.

“Democrats ignore South Texas at their peril,” he said. Democrats failed to dethrone “King of Laredo” Henry Cuellar, now they hope he will continue to rule

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