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Grassroots Progressives Launch Campaign to Oust Corporate Democrat Who Votes With Trump 70% of the Time

"Progressives have an opportunity to strategically primary the most vile Democrats in their ranks, and Henry Cuellar should top the list."

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks during a meeting about immigration with U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican and Democratic members of Congress in the Cabinet Room at the White House January 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) supports various laws designed to thwart a woman's right to choose, helps raise money for Republicans, has received exorbitant levels of cash from the fossil fuel industry, and votes with President Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of the time—a right-wing record that earned him the dubious honor of becoming the first 2020 primary target of a grassroots group working to replace corporate Democrats with bold progressives.

"District 28 and South Texas is in a special position to lead the nation on immigration, renewable-energy, and healthcare, yet Henry Cuellar has failed to do this by instead voting with Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of the time."
—Danny Diaz

Justice Democrats—which helped Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) topple powerful Wall Street Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last year—launched the Primary Cuellar Fund on Friday with the goal of recruiting a primary candidate who is committed to progressive solutions that are more in line with the interests of voters in Texas' left-leaning 28th congressional district.

"In the last election cycle, Justice Democrats revealed enormous energy in the Democratic Party primary electorate for change when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and [Rep.] Ayanna Pressley [D-Mass.] upset long-time incumbent Democrats who had grown out-of-touch with their deep blue districts," Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. "We're now leading a grassroots candidate recruitment effort to find a real Democrat to run against Cuellar."

"District 28 and South Texas is in a special position to lead the nation on immigration, renewable energy, and healthcare, yet Henry Cuellar has failed to do this by instead voting with Donald Trump nearly 70 percent of the time," added Danny Diaz, a community organizer who lives in the 28th district.

Justice Democrats' new campaign against Cueller comes as several House Democrats and congressional aides—speaking to Politico both anonymously and on the record—expressed concern and outrage that Ocasio-Cortez has in the past voiced support for primary campaigns against right-wing Democrats.

While Ocasio-Cortez's spokesman told the Washington Post that the freshman congresswoman is not involved in the effort to primary Cuellar, Politico reported that some House Democrats are "annoyed" by her "threat to back primary opponents against members of their ranks she deems too moderate."

"Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley's stunning upsets revealed that there's enormous appetite among Democrats for primary challengers to take on incumbents who are out-of-touch with their districts."
—Sean McElwee, Data for Progress

During a national strategy call last year, Ocasio-Cortez declared that "all Americans know money in politics is a huge problem, but unfortunately the way that we fix it is by demanding that our incumbents give it up or by running fierce campaigns ourselves."

According to Politico, this denunciation of lawmakers who accept corporate donations irked House Democrats.

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Additionally, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) expressed fury at a report that Ocasio-Cortez is helping to recruit a primary challenger against Democratic caucus chair Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). In a tweet, Ocasio-Cortez said the report is false.

"The chances that the Democratic caucus will stand by and watch its chair get attack[ed] and people piling on him—by Democrats!—is so obscene that I think you'll find one of the strongest reactions that could possibly be anticipated," Cleaver said.

In response to Politico's story, Saikat Chakrabarti—Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff—wrote, "The Democratic Party and the King of England have surprisingly similar reactions to democracy when their own power is threatened."

Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, suggested that, instead of attempting to "rein in" bold progressives like Ocasio-Cortez, Democrats should focus their anger on the members of their party who are helping Republicans win elections.

House Democrats may not like being threatened with primaries if they refuse to back progressive causes, but a survey by Data for Progress published last November found that most Democratic voters believe primaries "ensure the strongest Democrats emerge to advance" a clear and positive agenda.

"Progressives have an opportunity to strategically primary the most vile Democrats in their ranks, and Henry Cuellar should top the list," Data for Progress executive director Sean McElwee said in a statement on Friday. "Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley's stunning upsets revealed that there's enormous appetite among Democrats for primary challengers to take on incumbents who are out-of-touch with their districts."

In a press release announcing its effort to recruit a progressive to challenge Cuellar in 2020, Justice Democrats offered the following summary of the Texas Democrat's record and positions:

  • Cuellar is a 'Democrat' who has voted with Trump 69 percent of the time in the 115th Congress even as Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly 20 points in 2016.
  • Cuellar is a 'Democrat' who received an A rating from the NRA and he voted with Republicans in 2017 to support a permanent ban on the use of federal funds for abortion-related services.
  • Cuellar is a 'Democrat' who voted with Republicans to keep DACA from being passed and supported legislation to penalize cities and states with "sanctuary" laws for undocumented immigrants.
  • Cuellar is a 'Democrat' who openly fundraises for Republicans against other Democrats, including a progressive woman trying to unseat John Carter, a far-right Republican birther (Carter won his election 51-48).
  • Cuellar opposes a number of progressive policy priorities, including Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, banning private prisons and immigrant detention centers, repealing the Hyde Amendment, and automatic voter registration.
  • Over his lifetime, Cuellar has received thousands of dollars from the GEO Group, a private prison company, and more than a hundred thousand dollars from the Club for Growth, a far-right advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers.

"The people of District 28 need bold leadership that fights for the working class and the immigrant community, and not for corporate interest," Diaz concluded. "Henry Cuellar has a history of accepting corporate donations and working on their behalf, while ignoring the interest of working-class families in the district."

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