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Henry Cuellar (left), Jessica Cisneros (right)
Incumbent Henry Cuellar emerged a winner by 177 votes in a too-close-to-call runoff election in the Democratic primary for Texas' District 28. Photos: Getty Images.

Cuellar-Cisneros round two is too close to call

Only 177 votes separate the candidates in the hotly-contested South Texas Democratic primary.

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On a major runoff election day in South Texas that was eventually overshadowed by the worst of tragedies, incumbent Democratic congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar emerged from a major battle against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros with a slim 177-vote lead as of the morning of Wednesday, May 25.

It means the race is still too close to call, but it didn’t stop Cuellar from declaring victory on election night. Shortly after he made the declaration, Cisneros went to Twitter to tell supporters that she wouldn’t give in until every ballot was counted.

Cuellar’s response was a call to history — he first was elected to the seat via a recount in 2004 — and cited his legal team as defenders of his victory.

“We have very good attorneys and if we need to, we will defend our election victory,” he said.

At the beginning of the campaign, before the initial March primary, Cuellar looked capable of comfortably maintaining his seat even after the FBI raided his house in connection with an investigation into U.S. business ties with Azerbaijan.

The raid was one of many issues that would become ammunition for Cisneros, who built a much stronger challenge to Cuellar this time around with the backing of some major progressive names like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Cisneros, a 29-year-old immigration lawyer, previously challenged Cuellar in 2020, but fell short by a little more than 2,000 votes.

Cuellar is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and got the backing of his party’s establishment, including the endorsement of the Hispanic Caucus’ BOLD PAC. The endorsements also came after his initial close call with Cisneros in March, which saw neither candidate garner 50% of the vote and forced the contest to go to a runoff on May 24.

Despite the party backing, Cuellar saw his campaign hit again when POLITICO leaked a preliminary draft of a Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which challenges the state’s abortion ban after 15 weeks. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Samuel Alito, revealed that the Supreme Court would effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of abortion protection in the U.S.

Cuellar is one of the last pro-life Democrats in Congress, and Cisneros used his long opposition to the practice of abortion to her advantage in the last weeks leading up to the runoff.

“As the Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade, I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar, who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” she said in a statement on May 4.

While opposed to the practice as a result of his Catholic upbringing, Cuellar did come out against the pending decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in a statement also rooted in his religion.

“My faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would criminalize teenage victims of rape and incest. That same faith will not allow me to support a ruling that would make a mother choose between her life and her child’s,” he said.

On the day of the runoff, the lead changed hands multiple times, with Cisneros getting more of the urban areas of the district closer to San Antonio, while Cuellar scored strong wins in more rural areas closer to the border.

In the end, Cuellar’s longtime base of voters across the district looks to have barely given him a win. And it is definitely not the last time South Texas will hear the name Jessica Cisneros.

Despite likely pulling out the razor-thin win in his primary, Cuellar still faces a stiff challenge in the general election from Republican challenger Cassy Garcia, who won handily in her primary against Sandra Whitten.

Texas’ district 28, which has long been firmly in Cuellar’s grasp, is now considered a toss-up for November because of Republican gains among Hispanic voters along the border. A big selling point for Cuellar’s campaign is his ability to appeal to moderate voters in both parties.

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