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Pelosi Carries Right-Wing Rep. Henry Cuellar Over Finish Line to Defeat Progressive Jessica Cisneros

"Pelosi, the DCCC, and Charles Koch all teamed up for Cuellar."

Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looks on as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks

Then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) looks on as Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks during a news conference on their agenda for the first session of the 112th Congress. (Photo: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, known as President Donald "Trump's favorite Democrat," narrowly bested progressive primary challenger Jessica Cisneros at the polls Tuesday in a race where the incumbent was buoyed by backing from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Koch money.

Progressive advocacy group the Debt Collective called Cuellar's victory a "huge win for fossil fuels, ICE, Nancy Pelosi, and Cheri Bustos," the Illinois congresswoman who serves as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

In an early morning update on Texas's 28th Congressional District race, Dallas Morning News reported Cuellar received 51.6% of the vote to Cisneros's 48.4%.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly threw her weight behind Cuellar over the summer and campaigned for his re-election leading up to the primary, including at a stop at his campaign headquarters in Laredo just 10 days ahead of the vote when she called for "not only a victory, but a resounding victory for Henry Cuellar." 

In comments endorsing Cuellar in September, Pelosi said she was "very, very proud of Henry's work in the Congress and I'm proud to support him."

The remarks came the same day Bustos gave her stamp of approval, saying, "Cuellar knows that district like the back of his hand."

"I completely support him," Bustos said.

The contrasts between Cisneros and Cuellar were clear.

Cisneros's platform called for overturning Citizens United, boosting funding for infrastructure, expanding Social Security, and backing Medicare for All. Her campaign rejected corporate PAC money and raised over $2million from small contributions.

She dubbed Cuellar Trump's "favorite Democrat"—a branding given credence from a FiveThirtyEight analysis showing that he voted in line with Trump 44.5% of the time overall, including nearly 69% of the time during the 115th Congress.

Other assessments highlight how Cuellar's record has not been one of a progressive lawmaker.

The League of Conservation Voters gave Cuellar a 42% lifetime score , and the Texas AFL-CIO said that Cuellar was "not on working people's side." NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2018 gave him a 15% score on his congressional record on choice.

Cuellar was also backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and had the only election campaign of a congressional Democrat to ever get funding from Americans for Prosperity Action, a PAC founded by billionaire Charles Koch. 

Moreover, as Lee Fang reported at The Intercept last month, Cuellar "has used his perch in Congress to push for funds for private prisons, drone surveillance, and increased border security enforcement." Sludge added in December, "Not only has Cuellar consistently voted for the oil and gas industry's interests, but the PACs of oil and gas corporations have showered his campaigns with money."

Tracking by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that oil and gas were the Cuellar campaign's biggest industry funders, giving him over $128,000 over the past year.

Human rights lawyer Cisnernos, by contrast, boasted the backing of numerous labor groups and other progressive organizations including EMILY's List, Justice Democrats, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the Sunrise Movement as well as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—whose Justice Democrats-backed campaign successfully ousted Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018—and progressive presidential primary hopefuls Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

"Pelosi, the DCCC, and Charles Koch all teamed up for Cuellar," said Ryan Grim, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief at The Intercept Ryan Grim.

Observer Cedric Salvador put the blame for Cisneros's loss squarely on Pelosi's shoulders. 

"Cuellar is so far to the right of the average Democrat he's beyond the pale," he wrote. "Thanks, Pelosi." 

For her part, Cisneros sees the election outcome as "just the beginning."

"This fight was an opportunity to prove that a brown girl from the border with a whole community behind her could take on the machine and bring hope to South Texans," she said in a statement Wednesday. "This is just the beginning."

"The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear, and our movement was victorious in proving we're within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas," Cisneros added. 

Justice Democrats also pointed to the deep-pocketed interests that defeated Cisneros's progressive agenda.

"Jessica went farther than nearly every other progressive challenger before her and lost by a slim margin," said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. "The Chamber of Commerce, Koch network, Big Oil, and the most pernicious interests in our democracy poured tons of money into last-minute desperate, misleading, negative ads."

"After defeating Joe Crowley two years ago," said Rojas, "we didn't have the element of surprise, and the party machine and big corporate donors on the other side fought us back hard."

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