Bellwether Texas Border House Seat Too Close to Call

Incumbent demands enforcement, challenger seeks an ‘aspirant-friendly’ revamp for illegal migrants

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 26, 2022

Tuesday’s Democratic runoff election for the heavily Hispanic 28th House Congressional District seat pitting incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar against challenger Jessica Cisneros remains too close to call. Cuellar has long been critical of President Biden’s border policies, while Cisneros’ website describes her as “a proud Mexican-American immigration and human rights attorney”. The race is a bellwether for how Hispanic voters view immigration enforcement at the Southwest border.

The Count and the Interesting Voting Pattern. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Cuellar leads by a 175 votes out of more than 45,200 total ballots cast and accounted for. More interesting than the razor-thin margin is the voting pattern.

The further north — and away from the border — those votes were cast, the better that Cisneros has done. In Guadalupe County, roughly northeast of San Antonio proper, for example, the challenger captured 91 percent of the 3,628 votes that have been counted.

Heading directly Southwest to Bexar County (the 28th district includes parts of the City of San Antonio, which is in the county), her margin of victory fell slightly, with Cisneros capturing 85.8 percent of the 11,865 votes that have been counted.

Moving farther southwest and closer to the border, the race is tighter. In Atascosa County, Cisneros has captured just over two-thirds of the votes cast and counted, leading Cuellar 67.7 percent to 32.3 percent. That said, fewer than 1,100 voters showed up there.

The math is much easier — and the margins are much tighter — continuing southwest to McMullen County. Forty votes have been cast and counted, and Cisneros is winning by two of them, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.

Cuellar starts to come into his own downstate and near the Rio Grande. In inland Duval County, the incumbent leads by a 68.4 percent to 31.6 percent out of 2,318 votes cast and counted. That margin grows to 78.8 percent for the incumbent to 21.3 percent for the challenger in landlocked Jim Hogg County (with 833 votes cast and counted).

Starr, Zapata, and Webb are the three counties in the district that directly border Mexico, with Webb (home to the city of Laredo, where Cuellar was born) veering slightly north of Duval County.

Some 20,853 votes cast in Webb County have been counted, and 68.6 percent of them were for the incumbent. Southernmost Starr County is where the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) begins, and it’s home to the “smuggler’s paradise” of Roma, Texas, There, Cuellar’s margin is even greater — capturing 80.6 percent of the 2,996 votes cast and counted thus far.

The incumbent gets his biggest margin in Zapata County, however. Zapata is sandwiched between Webb and Starr Counties, and the voters there must really love their current representative because they gave him 88 percent of the 1,498 votes that have been cast and counted.

Immigration Stances of the Two Candidates. Of all of the Democrats currently sitting in the U.S. House of Representatives, Cuellar is likely the biggest immigration hawk and the loudest critic of the catastrophe that has been unfolding at the Southwest border.

Way back in March 2021, Cuellar leaked pictures of the crowded conditions at the DHS migrant holding facility in Donna, Texas, which showed unaccompanied alien children (UACs) huddled together wrapped in Mylar blankets under a soft-sided shelter. Those photographs tanked President Biden’s job approval ratings on immigration to a level from which he has not yet recovered.

Two months later, Cuellar (presciently and correctly) countered the president’s contentions that the Southwest border was “under control”, and complained that the federal government was “not paying attention to the border's communities”. The gentleman from Texas also pointed out that the Biden administration was playing a “shell game” by moving UACs from CBP housing into HHS shelters.

In April, Cuellar protested that the White House was listening too closely to “immigration activists” in attempting to end CDC orders directing the expulsion of illegal migrants, issued under Title 42 of the U.S. Code in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cuellar has asserted that this pro-enforcement stance puts him in a better position than Cisneros to defend the Democratic seat in November, contending that Republicans are “not gonna be able to attack me on issues about the border, fighting for Border Patrol, making sure that we don't have open borders.”

Turning to the challenger (who once interned for her opponent), the Washington Post reports: “Cisneros’s agenda includes support for abortion rights, Medicare-for-all and a more aspirant-friendly revamp of the nation’s immigration system, but she has said her embrace is more than backing progressive liberal ideals.”

”Aspirant-friendly” is a new one for me, but Cisneros wants to repeal the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which the Post contends (subjectively and inaptly) “laid the groundwork for the country’s massive deportation system”.

The challenger has also described her immigration law practice as “heartbreaking and painful”, continuing:

But I was representing so many people that reminded me of myself, of my family, and that the only difference between them and me was the fact that I was born in this country, that I just so happened to be born five minutes north of the river.

That said, however, and as the foregoing analysis reveals, Cisneros doesn’t have much support among those living “five minutes north of the river” — her base is in metropolitan San Antonio and its environs some 150 miles from the Rio Grande.

Demographic Breakdown. As noted, Texas 28 is heavily Hispanic, but even more so in Cuellar’s base.

Guadalupe County is less than 38 percent Hispanic, Bexar as a whole about 60 percent, Atascosa more than 63.5 percent, and McMullen just under 37.5 percent. Duval, by contrast, is almost 80 percent Hispanic, Jim Hogg about 88.5 percent, Zapata 93.59 percent, Webb greater than 95.2 percent, and Starr nearly 97.7 percent.

The Hispanic mix of the population and Cuellar’s level of support by county are not a perfect fit, but the trend is clear.

Two Hot-Button Issues. Of course, this was not a single-issue election. Cuellar is the last pro-life Democrat in the House, and so not surprisingly pro-choice organizations EMILY’s List and NARAL poured in support for the challenger. South Texas (especially near the Rio Grande) is heavily Catholic, though, so the church’s pro-life stance may have tipped their votes toward the incumbent.

Immigration and abortion are two of the hottest of hot-button issues, so it is questionable whether Cisneros will prevail in the general election should she win the runoff. In the first Democratic primary election for Texas 28 in March, just over 49,200 total votes were cast.

The top two vote-getters in Texas head to a run-off if neither gets a majority, and neither Cuellar nor Cisneros was able to pull that off in March (hence this week’s runoff). The 10 percent drop-off this time in the total vote around is low by runoff standards, and so it is not clear whether voters who were enthusiastic to vote for one candidate on May 24 will support the other in November.

That said, the Republicans also went to a run-off this week for Texas 28, and fewer than 15,000 votes were cast. Some Cuellar Democrats may switch to the GOP candidate if their man doesn’t win, but then again, many may not.

In any event, the results from the Texas 28th Congressional District runoff offer a window into how Hispanics may vote in November, and in the future. The two candidates were diametrically opposed on border security and abortion, and the results indicate that near the Rio Grande at least, Hispanic voters were not swayed by an “aspirant-friendly” illegal immigration stance.

Topics: Politics