Just 23 days before the Texas primary runoff, everything changed for Jessica Cisneros when it became clear that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Cisneros, a 28-year-old millennial, first-generation Mexican-American immigration lawyer running for Congress in Texas’ 28th District is vocally in favor of abortion rights. She is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, a 17-year House veteran who is the last anti-abortion Democrat in Congress.
The right to have an abortion, which has been at the forefront of the primary election in the 28th, has reclaimed national attention following the the leak of a Supreme Court draft. The Supreme Court’s decision on the right to an abortion could come any day.
Since the draft was released, the stakes of Tuesday May 24 rematch between Latino candidates Cuellar and challenger Cisneros have become even higher.
While Cisneros and allies have campaigned on the issue of abortion, Cuellar has avoided the topic altogether until forced to release an official statement following the court leak.
“I do not support abortion, however, we cannot have an outright ban. There must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Cisneros, who has been endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other big-name leaders to withdraw their Cuellar endorsements.
“I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” Cisneros said in a recent statement. “With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk.”
Warren also made a direct plea to voters in early May on NBC: “I actually want to put in a pitch for something everyone watching this can do today — there’s about to be a primary down in Texas for Henry Cuellar’s seat…If you’re mad when you listen to this, send Jessica Cisneros ten bucks; if you can afford more, send more!”
The Supreme Court draft findings have galvanized people at the right time for Cisneros, who is hoping to pull an upset. NARAL officials say they are getting calls from voters in the last few weeks.
“We even got an email into our press inbox, where reporters normally contact us, from someone who was like, ‘How do I phone bank for Jessica Cisneros?’” Kristin Ford, a spokesperson for the NARAL told the Texas Tribune. It’s one example of the energy on the ground, as groups like NARAL are seeing a surge in donations as well. NARAL has spent $75,000 supporting Cisneros and has three members of its organizing staff in the 28th this year, compared with one staffer back in 2020 when Cisneros first ran.
Ford also told the Texas Tribune that the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade “just really ups the ante about why we need to be involved in this race.”
This comes as a new Politico poll found that 82% of Democratic voters, 57% of independents and 35% of Republicans said it was important for them to vote for a candidate who supports abortion access.
The Texas race is expected to go down to the wire, just as it has the last two times these candidates have faced off. In the March primary, the two were nearly tied, with Cuellar winning 23,552 votes while Cisneros won 22,785 of just under 49,000 votes cast. The runoff is May 24.
In 2020, Cuellar was reelected by winning 38,834 votes while Cisneros won 36,144 — less than 3,000 vote difference of the total 74,978 votes. Cuellar was able to hold on thanks to decades of name recognition and strong fundraising — he outspent Cisneros by $700,000.
The brighter spotlight on the issue comes as Texas has effectively banned abortions after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. The Texas Heartbeat Act is one of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, even opening the door for private citizens to sue abortion providers and collect $10,000 bounties.
NARAL isnt the only pro-choice organization that has endorsed Cisneros. Planned Parenthood has also been vocal about its disapproval of Texas’ new abortion ban, demonstrating its disgust by endorsing Cisneros — the first time the group has ever endorsed a non-incumbent.
“We are at a critical point for abortion rights in this country and already, Texas has been a preview of how abortion bans will harm people by stripping them of their freedom to decide their own future,” Kelley Robinson, executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in an interview. “Jessica is the best candidate for Texans living in the 28th Congressional District because she believes reproductive health care is a human right and has a proven record of advocating for her community.”
Cisneros has always been vocal about her belief in the right to have and perform an abortion. In her launch video, she said she’s fighting “for reproductive healthcare, porque nuestras mamás, nuestras hijas, nuestras hermanas, our friends and family deserve freedom, dignity, and respect,” switching between Spanish and English.
Cuellar is the very political mold Cisneros wants to break down. Cuellar voted against legislation that would codify Roe into law while Cisneros said she supported the legislation. Cuellar was also the only Democrat to oppose a House bill that would nullify the Texas Heartbeat Act. The Cisneros campaign said they saw a surge in volunteers and donations after the September vote even though Cuellar enjoys a massive fundraising advantage.
But Cuellar says he isn’t worried that the Supreme Court draft leak will hurt his campaign. “It’s just another issue — new issues always come up during elections,” he told the Texas Tribune.
This statement comes days after a May 2 report from the Texas Politics Project found that a majority of Texas voters oppose a complete ban on abortions.
Despite national outrage, the issue isn’t as cut and dry as it might seem. The Catholic Latino vote will be the deciding factor in this Hispanic majority district. The 28th, which includes part of the U.S.-Mexico border, is one of the most Catholic districts in the country with nine of every 10 residents practicing Catholicism.
Cuellar has argued that his stance on abortion mirrors the majority opinion in his district. But a poll taken last year found that 54 percent of Texan Hispanics said that they opposed the complete ban of abortion in Texas.
For a number of reasons, the district looks vastly different than when Cuellar and Cisneros have battled in the past. While Texas Republicans have employed redistricting to win back the greater Republican majority in the House, the 28th has become more Democratic with more voters from Bexar County and San Antonio. The district also shifted from 76.9% Hispanic to 75.3%, but the slight increase in progressive white voters could actually help Cisneros.
Still, Republicans need just five net seats to win back control of the House and the Senate is within Republican reach. Reproductive rights is highly likely to engage and motivate voters on both sides.
Two Republican candidates have also advanced to that party’s runoff in the safe Democratic District: Cassy Garcia and Sandra Whitten.
Some believe abortion has become too polarized. “I’ve been saying for five, six years that the Democratic Party is really risking pushing more people out of the party because of the increasingly extreme position on abortion that the party is taking,” former Rep. Dan Lipinski, an anti-abortion Democrat who lost his primary race in 2020, told the Washington Post.
And fundraising in this South Texas race suggests that Lipinski could be right. With more than $1.4 million in cash on hand, Cuellar is leading the race in fundraising against Cisneros with $1 million in cash on hand. However, Cisneros may not require a lot more funding for outreach since organizations like NARAL, Pro Choice America and Women’s Vote Project are funding pro-choice advertisements on her behalf, spending thousands of dollars a day.
“She’ll protect our reproductive freedom. Jessica Cisneros is the fighter we need,” a NARAL video advertisement for Cisneros says.
With Texan voters hitting the polls Tuesday, the race has taken plenty of twists and turns with Cuellar seeing his home and offices raided by the FBI in mid-January as part of a corruption probe and Cisneros battling accusations she had an affair with her high school teacher.
“Unfortunately, a future where Roe is overturned is a future that we know Henry Cuellar has been fighting for,” Cisneros said in a statement. “It’s one thing, I guess, bracing yourself, knowing this was going to happen, and then it’s another seeing it actually happen and what’s going to come down the line this summer.”