SAN ANTONIO and LAREDO, Texas—When Jessica Cisneros was 13, her aunt was diagnosed with stomach cancer. “I remember seeing [my uncle] and his family go through this difficult period in their lives where they just could not afford the treatment my aunt needed,” she recalled as she drove from San Antonio to the border city of Laredo, two days before Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Before the age of GoFundMe, Cisneros and other family members sold food at the side of the road and held lotería fundraisers to help raise money for her aunt’s care, but when she died, they still struggled to pay for the cost of her funeral. “We did everything we could so that my aunt could get what she needed, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t enough,” Cisneros said.
Cisneros, the 26-year-old immigrant rights attorney running to unseat the long-standing conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, has told this story over and over again on the trail. It’s meant to bring a human, and personal, element to her call for ambitious public policies like Medicare for All, and to highlight how out of touch her opponent is with the needs of his district. In Laredo, the poverty rate hovers around 30 percent, and about a third of the district’s residents don’t have health insurance. “It resonates with folks, because it’s happened to a loved one, or they know somebody that has,” she told me. She added, “No family should have to go through that.”
Incumbents rarely lose, but Cisneros, who has been lauded as the latest insurgent candidate challenging the Democratic establishment, has what feels like the full weight of the progressive movement behind her. On Tuesday, all eyes will be on Cisneros and the district she’s hoping to represent, a gerrymandered, massive swathe of south Texas that stretches all the way from San Antonio to Laredo and down the border. Her primary race against Cuellar, which has drawn an outsized amount of both attention and money, is widely seen as the latest test of whether a progressive, outsider candidate can take down a standing member of Congress that has the full backing of party leadership. (Just don’t call her the next Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, please, a tokenizing comparison that does neither of them justice.)
If she wins the primary, which would all but guarantee that she would become the youngest woman to become a member of Congress, it would be an upset, but one that would bolster the argument that the political winds are shifting. Cisneros, a Laredo native from a working-class family who has spent her career defending immigrants in detention, is reflective of what the Democratic Party can, and needs to, become. On paper, it should be easy for party leaders like Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to throw Cuellar to the side and embrace Cisneros. Cisneros calls her opponent “Trump’s favorite Democrat” for a very good reason—namely, his willingness to vote for Trump’s policies almost 70 percent of the time during the president’s first two years in office. Give his record even a cursory examination—from border security (Cuellar has claimed to oppose building a border wall but has voted to fund new wall construction) to abortion access (he’s one of the few remaining anti-abortion Democrats in Congress) to gun rights (Cuellar has long had an A rating from the NRA and has accepted money from the group) to the private prison industry (as one outlet put it, “No congressional Democrat has received more financial backing from private prisons”)—and it seems obvious that Cuellar is a relic of a Democratic Party that no longer exists.
But for Democratic Party leaders, challengers like Cisneros represent an existential threat, and the only lesson they seem to have taken away from the last two years is the need to prevent an AOC-type defeat. At a recent fundraiser for Cuellar, Pelosi called for a “resounding” victory for the eight-term congressman, pitting herself squarely against the party’s left flank. “We assume that Henry will win, but we don’t take anything for granted,” Pelosi said. “The word ‘assume’—ass of you and me. Assume nothing.” Cisneros, whose platform includes support for the Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage, has been endorsed by the Justice Democrats, which recruited her to run against Cuellar, as well as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, a slew of progressive groups and unions, and more mainstream organizations like EMILY’s List, many of which have spent heavily to support her campaign. On Cuellar’s side, on the other hand, are an array of special interest groups, including some that would seem to be a more natural fit for a Republican, including the Koch political network, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the oil and gas industry. Cuellar, who hasn’t faced a serious challenge to his seat in more than a decade, is clearly worried by Cisneros, and the special interests that have donated to his campaigns over the years are clearly worried as well, protecting their investment by pouring huge sums of money into the race in the final stretch. Taking a page from the Republican playbook, Cuellar has accused Cisneros of being a socialist who wants to destroy jobs.
For her part, Cisneros is banking on her belief that the voters in the solidly Democratic district, which backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a wide margin in 2018, are not as conservative as Cuellar believes. “That idea that south Texas is super conservative is a myth being perpetuated by people like Henry Cuellar so he doesn’t have to justify why he’s been voting the way he’s been voting,” Cisneros told me. She pointed to Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in 2018 as proof. “South Texas went for him even when the person who was anti-choice and had an A rating from the NRA was Ted Cruz,” Cisneros noted pointedly.
Still, it would be foolish to think that a relative newcomer like Cisneros, even one with the progressive political establishment squarely behind her, could easily unseat a powerful Democrat who’s known in south Texas for bringing home the bacon. I got a reminder of that in Laredo on Monday when I met 28-year-old Freddie Chavarria, who told me he was a hardcore Bernie Sanders supporter, and had even convinced his grandmother, who had voted for Trump in 2016, to vote for Sanders on Tuesday. Chavarria was critical of Cuellar’s support for building a stretch of the border wall. But he planned on voting for Cuellar, whom he described as a known quantity. “He’s always taken care of Texas as a state,” Chavarria said. “I can’t agree with everything he says, but I trust him.”
For all that Cisneros’s campaign against Cuellar has been framed as some sort of bellwether for the Democratic Party, Cisneros is keenly aware that in politics, everything ultimately boils down to the local. Cuellar often touts that he has the support of most of the district’s Democratic leaders and elected officials; Cisneros’s game plan has been to take the argument straight to voters, holding town halls and doorknocking throughout the district.
Cisneros had once interned for Cuellar in 2014, where she observed that he seemed disinterested in actually speaking with the people he represented. “I think the most important thing you have to have is to have the best interests of your constituents in mind, and I didn’t see that from the congressman,” she told me. “I noticed the congressman wasn’t taking meetings with people who looked like me and my parents.”
If outside observers are following the race for its broader implications, Cisneros is more focused on meeting the needs of people in south Texas. “To the people in the district, it’s not about labels,” she said. “It’s about true representation and it’s about someone making the effort of going out there and hearing their concerns and isn’t lying about their track record.”
A victory, she continued, would “show us we don’t have to settle for representation that isn’t reflective of our values.”
On Sunday, I joined two of Cisneros’s classmates from the University of Texas at Austin’s law school, Rosann Mariappuram and Louis Bedford, who had driven to San Antonio to canvass for their friend. Mariappuram, who now heads up a Texas abortion advocacy group, remembered that while in law school, Cisneros had started a project to represent women held at the notorious T. Don Hutto detention center. “Some kids were partying, Jessica was at Hutto at 7 a.m.,” Mariappuram said. “She was always talking about the human element of the law,” Bedford added.
Shortly before the two had set out, Cisneros, accompanied by NARAL Pro-Choice’s Ilyse Hogue, had spoken to the dozen or so people gathered at Cisneros’s campaign office in San Antonio. Hogue, whose group has endorsed Cisneros, brought up Cuellar’s anti-abortion record and noted that a former employee had brought a pregnancy discrimination case against him. “Texas has been ground zero for the attempt to use our own ability to reproduce as a weapon against us,” Hogue said. “This country is at a crossroads,” Cisneros told the group; behind her, a veladora decorated with a photo of her face flickered. Her “scrappy campaign,” as she put it to the volunteers on Sunday, would “make history.”
That day, Mariappuram and Bedford were tasked with canvassing a neighborhood in San Antonio’s southside, precisely the kind of working-class neighborhood, many of whose residents were black and Latinx, that Cisneros’s campaign is likely banking on turning out to win. The duo’s efforts seemed promising for Cisneros—as they knocked on doors, one young Latina said that she would be voting for the first time, for both Bernie Sanders and Cisneros; a young black woman who answered her door told them that her top issue was access to birth control, and that she too planned on voting for Cisneros. Still, Cisneros was not exactly a known quantity with voters. When Robert Camacho, 40, opened his door, he almost immediately began railing against corporate PACs. He told Mariappuram that he had seen “some controversy” about Cuellar taking Koch brothers money on his Facebook feed. Still, he was unsure if he would show up on Tuesday. “On the primaries, I may just not vote,” Camacho said. His mind was on the presidential candidates—he was a fan of Elizabeth Warren, but had been turned off by her recent embrace of super PAC money. As for Sanders, Camacho was disappointed by his voting record, which he believed was at odds with his rhetoric. “Right now, I think we need a little bit more left of center,” Camacho said. “The whole money thing...”
“Is a huge problem,” Mariappuram chimed in, adding, “Jessica’s definitely the response to that. She’s not taking corporate PAC money.”
“Our logic is, even if it’s straight blue and some guy’s corrupt, he’s probably going to at least be corrupt for the Democrats,” Camacho replied, referring to the thinking of him and his wife.
“This one’s not,” Mariappuram said of Cuellar. “He voted 70 percent with Trump.”
Camacho remained unconvinced. “I understand you want me to vote, but sometimes the stars don’t align for that,” he said wearily.
The next day, I drove south to Laredo, the heart of the district, and Cuellar’s power base. Everywhere were reminders that in Laredo, the Cuellar family dominates politics—Cuellar’s brother Martin is the Webb County Sheriff, and his sister Rosie is the county’s tax assessor and collector. All three siblings are running for re-election, and street corners throughout the city are plastered with their campaign signs, at times all three of them, side by side.
One of the few local organizations to endorse Cisneros is the Webb County Young Democrats. Amber Avis, the group’s 29-year-old chair, summed up their decision to support Cisneros as “no more Cuellar.” When I asked her why so many local Democratic leaders were squarely behind Cuellar, she described it as a generational divide. “The young Democrats are wanting change and more progressive candidates,” Avis said, ticking off the border wall, immigrant detention centers, and climate change as issues younger Latinx voters in the district cared about. She noted of Cuellar, “He completely stands on the other side of that.”
Avis appreciated that Cisneros, in stark contrast to Cuellar, had spent so much time holding town halls in the district and speaking directly with voters. “I think in the entire 15 years, he’s never come down to ask, what are the issues that keep you up at night?” she said. She added, “It’s time for something new.”
Other voters I talked to agreed with Avis. I met Nilda Salinas, 57, at her job at a motorcycle shop. She had already cast her ballot for Cisneros during early voting, partly due to the urging of her daughter. “He’s done well,” Salinas said of Cuellar, “but always, you need change. You can’t have the same person forever. You’ve got to have new ideas, new visions.” Salinas described herself as a fan of Medicare for All. “Health insurance, it’s hard right now to get it, and people really need it,” she told me. Her daughter had also told her of Cuellar’s voting record. “That’s something that set her off,” Salinas said. “I’m not a fan of Trump, so… I voted for Jessica.”
On Monday night, Cisneros was still working and speaking with voters in Zapata, a rural town an hour’s drive from Laredo. As the sun went down, she went door to door to make her case that, as she put it to one woman, it was “time for change.” Cisneros didn’t bring up Donald Trump, she didn’t mention Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or any of her other prominent endorsers—instead, she talked about the fact that in Zapata, there was no 24-hour health care clinic, which meant that residents had to drive 5o miles to Laredo for emergency care.
“That’s what we need,” one woman told her approvingly.
“Hopefully, we can count on your support,” Cisneros told her, adding, “Fifteen years is enough time to prove yourself.”
She remained undecided after meeting Cisneros, but at least one woman in the neighborhood, 64-year-old Maria Juarez, was swayed by Cisneros’s message. She told me she planned on voting for Cisneros on Tuesday. When I asked her why, her reply was to the point—she wanted more money for the district, more jobs, ironically all of the things that Cuellar had claimed he provided for his constituents, but that she didn’t see evidence of. Juarez trusted Cisneros, she said. “We want change.”