In rematch, Jessica Cisneros faces a weakened Henry Cuellar for South Texas congressional seat

By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

May 17, 2022

WASHINGTON — A political knife fight in the streets of Laredo. An ambitious challenger with powerful allies and formidable fundraising. A longtime congressman who once coasted to reelection facing an existential test amid redistricting in a Democratic primary.

The year was 2004, and it was the last year any Texas Democratic congressmen would lose reelection in a primary.

And in that Laredo race, the challenger was Henry Cuellar.

Eighteen years later, the tables have turned on the now-senior Democrat. He faces a bonafide threat to his political livelihood in the form of attorney Jessica Cisneros, a progressive darling, fellow Laredo native and former intern in Cuellar’s congressional office.

The May 24 primary runoff election is a rematch from two years ago, when Cisneros fell just short of pushing Cuellar to a runoff in 2020. She is challenging him again, and once more, liberal groups are solidly consolidated behind her. Cuellar is undoubtedly formidable, with the backing of some of the party’s top national leaders.

But after an unrelenting slew of bad political news for Cuellar this year, he’s never been more vulnerable.

Prior to the May 3 leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft ruling that appears ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the matchup was already attracting the attention of Democratic leaders in a race that embodied the yearslong fight between progressives and pragmatists for control of the party.

But now, Cuellar’s record as the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House has reignited ire from members of the party from across the nation, who are still reeling from the reports that abortion could soon be outlawed in half of the country. On that issue and other policies — unions, border security, and oil and gas — he and Cisneros are at odds.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022. Credit: Chris Stokes for The Texas Tribune

“The stakes are very high,” said Jose Borjon, a Washington-based lobbyist originally from South Texas who once worked for Cuellar and continues to support him.

“This is a huge deal for Democrats,” he added, suggesting that this race serves as a proxy fight amid a larger divide within the party nationally. “It’s a huge deal for the mood of our country. It’s a huge deal in politics … because it pits progressive policies espoused by Cisneros over more centrist policies espoused by Cuellar.”

The Supreme Court leak roiled the race, but Cuellar’s campaign was already injured from when the FBI conducted a mysterious and still unexplained raid on his Laredo home and campaign office weeks before the March primary. Cuellar’s attorney has said the FBI informed him that Cuellar is not a target of an investigation, and Cuellar has denied wrongdoing.

Cisneros capitalized on the news, raising a stunning amount of money for the race.

Six weeks later, Cuellar was unable in March to win the primary outright, falling short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Before the raid, he began the campaign season from a stronger position than two years ago: He raised millions of dollars over the last two years for this race, and he modernized his political operation. Cisneros, too, is an improved candidate this year. She first ran as a 26-year-old fresh out of law school. This time around, she has a more polished presentation and her national progressive supporters are even more determined to take out Cuellar.

“I pride myself on having an ear to the ground and I say that because if the issues we are running on aren’t important to people in the district, there was no way that a first-time, 26-year-old challenger last time around would have come so close to defeating an incumbent that's been in office longer than I’ve been alive, right?” Cisneros said in an interview earlier this month.

Lately, Cisneros has leaned into her stance for abortion rights as a contrast to Cuellar’s record. But in other cases, she softened her rhetoric on some of the positions she took in 2018 that gave her blowback.

For instance, in the last campaign cycle, Cisneros advocated to “split [U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement] in half and reassign enforcement functions … to other agencies, including the Department of Justice,” in a candidate survey with 350 Action, a group formed to fight climate change.

This February, Cuellar’s camp seized on that point, saying in a widely viewed television advertisement that her position would be “... leaving us with open borders that would make us less safe and cost us thousands of jobs, putting our security and economy in jeopardy.”

When asked if she still backed that ICE policy from November 2019, Cisneros focused on impact to jobs.

“I would never support any kind of policy or legislation that would take anyone’s jobs away because I, myself, know how difficult it is making ends meet,” she said.

“I know how scary it is for people to think that their livelihood is going to be messed with,” she added.

But Cisneros still embraces her progressivism with abandon.

She describes abortion “as health care.” She supports a Green New Deal in oil and gas country. And her campaign has hosted a succession of progressive celebrities — including U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, plus U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — who have come to the district to campaign for her.

Cuellar in trouble

It is noteworthy whenever a U.S. House incumbent loses reelection in a primary because such losses are so rare. Typically, only a small handful of members lose this way each cycle. The last U.S. House member to lose reelection from Texas was in 2014, when U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall lost the Republican nomination to John Ratcliffe, who went on to serve in Congress and as the director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump.

The two strongest signs of political danger for a Texas U.S. House incumbent are facing a runoff challenge and being outraised by a challenger.

Cuellar currently faces both circumstances.

In an interview in the days after the Supreme Court abortion news, Cisneros said her fundraising staff was inundated by donors motivated to oust an anti-abortion Democrat.

And that’s fresh money that came into the Cisneros organization after campaign finance reports showing that by May 4, she had raised $4.5 million over the course of the cycle, compared to Cuellar’s $3.1 million.

In comparison, there is a much quieter Democratic primary in a far more expensive television advertising market in Dallas. The two candidates there, state Rep. Jasmine Crockett and former Congressional staffer Jane Hamilton, have raised $567,000 and $654,000, respectively.

Cuellar allies argue that abortion is a complicated issue in the heavily Catholic region, and that other issues matter more to voters, including border security, which is an issue they anticipate will benefit Cuellar. Cuellar has sided with Republicans in calling for President Joe Biden to keep in place Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allows immigration officials to expel migrants at the southern border without giving them a chance to seek asylum.

And despite the renewed scrutiny of this race, they argue Cuellar’s work ethic and ties to the community will earn him a 10th term. Borjon, the former Cuellar staffer, told The Texas Tribune that while trying to reach out to Cuellar last week, the congressman briefly stepped aside to take the call while attending a local graduation ceremony in his district — one of at least five Cuellar was scheduled to attend over the weekend.

“Henry Cuellar will show up to anything for anyone, anywhere in the 28th District of Texas,” Borjon said. “He is one of the hardest-working members of Congress that I know.”

Cuellar declined a request for an interview.

A fractured party

Despite the tumult, Cuellar’s powerful allies have doubled down on their support of him.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated her support for Cuellar last week, a statement that enraged and astonished the left in the wake of the Supreme Court developments.

“I'm supporting Henry Cuellar,” she said at a news conference. “He’s a valued member of our caucus.”

At the same time, EMILY’s List, an influential group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights and with whom Pelosi has been closely aligned for decades, is one of Cisneros’ strongest backers. Last week the organization booked about a half-million-dollar television advertising buy to help Cisneros.

Pelosi last week repeated reports that his attorney said Cuellar was not a target of the FBI investigation. She added that anti-abortion Democrats have served in the House before, and his vote was not needed to pass a bill in the House to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law last fall.

“He is not pro-choice, but we didn’t need him,” she said. “We passed the bill with what we had.”

And she’s not alone: U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, campaigned for Cuellar earlier this month in San Antonio, and the fourth-ranking House Democrat, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York donated to Cuellar’s campaign in a recent campaign finance report.

No longer a Democratic bulwark

When Cuellar first won in 2004, an Austin Chronicle recap of that year’s elections around the state described South Texas as a region that “remains the state’s Democratic bulwark.”

The 2020 election shattered that long-held consensus, as Democrats across the region saw their margins shrink to underfunded Republican candidates.

So now for the first time in modern history, South Texas Democrats have to factor the general election into their considerations in choosing their nominees due to the coming Republican onslaught which will be led by either Cassy Garcia or Sandra Whitten, who are competing for the Republican nomination in their own runoff.

In April, political analyst David Wasserman said out loud to the Tribune what many Republican and Democratic operatives were saying privately: South Texas is far more socially conservative than many Democratic-leaning hubs, and many of Cisneros’ biggest supporters don’t live in her district. As such, Cuellar is the more electable contender in the fall, Wasserman and others have argued.

When asked about this notion, Cisneros said her ascent indicates she is more in touch with the district.

“People generally say that about incumbents, right?” Cisneros told the Tribune. “I think the boost that Henry claims to get is one that stems from him being an incumbent, not so much someone that is actually representing the values of the district.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/17/jessica-cisneros-henry-cuellar-texas-runoff-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

The Supreme Court draft ruling puts Texas' Henry Cuellar in hot seat over abortion votes ahead of runoff election

When Jessica Cisneros released the first TV ad of her Democratic primary runoff last week, it highlighted how her opponent, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, was the only House Democrat to vote against legislation to codify Roe v. Wade.

“But on May 24, you can have the last word,” the ad said as it flashed images of women’s faces.

Then, on Monday night, Politico published a leaked draft opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court indicating it plans to overturn the landmark abortion rights case.

With only three weeks to go until the May 24 election, abortion rights have reclaimed the national stage. The tight race between Cuellar, a moderate Democrat who famously opposes abortion, and Cisneros, a young progressive, represents the most vivid illustration of how the leaked opinion could reshape a number of the fast-approaching runoffs.

It “just really ups the ante about why we need to be involved in this race,” said Kristin Ford, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, which supports Cisneros. The leaked opinion “increases the urgency and is yet another ominous sign of what’s to come.”

The Supreme Court on Tuesday confirmed the authenticity of the leaked opinion but said it does not represent a final vote of the court.

Cuellar was quiet on the news most of Tuesday before issuing an evening statement that said he opposes abortion but also denounced the likely ruling, saying it was without precedent and would “further divide the country during these already divisive times.”

“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. “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.”

Texas’ runoffs are in 21 days, but many Democrats are already looking to harness the energy for the November election. The Democratic nominee for governor, Beto O’Rourke, was among the first major Texas politicians to react to the Politico story Monday night, tweeting that it has “never been more urgent to elect a governor who will always protect a woman’s right to abortion.”

If the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden said in a statement, “it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.”

“Winning political power is the … only way to overcome this,” O’Rourke said during an Instagram Live broadcast Tuesday afternoon with Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood who serves as his national finance chair.

Later Tuesday afternoon, O’Rourke announced a “rally for abortion rights” Saturday in Houston.

But before the general election are the Texas runoffs, and they provide some clear choices for voters who care about abortion rights.

Cuellar is the last outlier among House Democrats on abortion.

By the time Cuellar joined Congress in 2005, the U.S. House’s influence on abortion was mostly relegated to arguments over whether government money should be used to fund abortions, both domestically and abroad.

In those debates, Cuellar often joined a small group of Democrats in siding with Republicans. For instance, in early 2012 he and 13 other Democrats gathered in support to watch President Barack Obama sign an exective order clarifying that no federal funds would be used to pay for abortions under his 2010 health care law. Only three of the Democrats who were there that day are still in office.

Nearly all of Cuellar’s like-minded Democrats from that era have since retired, lost reelection or moved more in line with the rest of the party on abortion.

The culmination of his isolation on abortion came in September. In response to the Texas abortion law, which essentially bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, the U.S. House passed the Women’s Health Protection Act that would codify the right to an abortion at the federal level. It has not passed the Senate.

Cuellar was the lone Democrat to vote against it and did not shy away from his vote.

“It’s called conscience,” Cuellar told the Laredo Morning Times in October. “I am a Catholic, and I do believe in rights and right to life. … Sometimes people vote because of political [views], they think this is a Democratic or Republican issue. To me, it’s a matter of conscience.”

The leaked opinion came ahead of a major campaign event for Cuellar: a Wednesday rally in San Antonio with House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, R-S.C.,the No. 3 House Democrat.

In a phone interview with The Texas Tribune, Cisneros described breaking a personal rule on Monday night of staying off social media in the evenings in order to check out the latest fashion trends at the Met Gala. She was stunned to discover instead that the Supreme Court was postured to go further than expected in rolling back abortion rights.

“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,” she said, referring to the Supreme Court’s anticipated June ruling.

She said the news would not affect her campaign strategy going forward because abortion has always been central to her case against Cuellar — both this cycle and when she challenged him for the first time in 2020.

“Unfortunately, a future where Roe is overturned is a future that we know Henry Cuellar has been fighting for,” she said.

While other Democratic runoffs may not reflect such a stark divide on abortion rights, the topic is still relevant as advocates have taken sides in hopes of electing the strongest allies possible.

In the Democratic runoff for attorney general, abortion rights group have backed Rochelle Garza, a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, over Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city. At the ACLU, Garza represented an undocumented teenager fighting to get an abortion, which she obtained after a federal appeals court ruled in her favor.

“The role of the Texas Attorney General is increasingly important given last night’s SCOTUS developments,” Garza tweeted Tuesday morning. “When Roe is repealed & states are left to cherry-pick their own abortion regulations, Texans’ last line of defense against forced pregnancy will be the AG.”

Jaworksi is also a supporter of abortion rights and responded to the leaked opinion by outlining on Twitter how he would fight back against the end of Roe v. Wade as attorney general.

Ana Ramón, interim executive director of Annie’s List, which supports Garza, said the attorney general’s race is “one of the most crucial” in Texas going forward. She said Garza’s “lived experience” as a mother and lawyer fighting for abortion rights sets her apart in the runoff.

“Of course, [positions on] issues are critical, but outcomes are even more critical,” Ramón said, “and we need that level of experience right now in Texas.”

In the Democratic runoff for what could be the most competitive congressional district in November — the 15th District in the Rio Grande Valley — abortion rights organizations have endorsed Michelle Vallejo, a small-business owner and activist from Alton. Vallejo was quick to react to the Politico story, tweeting that it is “time to elect more pro-choice women to congress” and urging voters to “show up to fight” in the runoff.

Vallejo’s opponent, Ruben Ramirez, said in a statement Tuesday that the country “cannot move backwards” on abortion rights and that the leaked opinion “only reconfirms our need to codify Roe v. Wade into law.”

Then there are Democratic primary runoffs for the Texas Legislature where abortion rights could also take on even more signifiance. In Texas Senate District 27 in the Rio Grande Valley, Sara Stapleton-Barrera and Morgan LaMantia are competing to replace retiring Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat who has long split with his party on aborton rights, including voting for the almost-total ban on abortion that became law last year.

Lucio is backing LaMantia, who has said she nonetheless disagrees with him on abortion rights and would have voted against the near-total ban. But some abortion rights advocates see a more stalwart ally in Stapleton-Barrera, who challenged Lucio in 2020 and forced him to a runoff, which she lost by 7 percentage points.

In the Republican runoffs, the leaked opinion is less likely to reverberate given the Texas GOP’s unity on the issue. Republicans in the Legislature virtually all supported the near-total abortion ban and another law last year to automatically outlaw abortion in Texas if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

One state House Republican, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, had a change of heart after voting for the almost-total ban and introduced a bill to provide exceptions for rape and incest. But it went nowhere, and Larson is not seeking reelection in his solidly red district.

In fact, in some GOP runoffs, Republicans are debating what more they can do to erradicate abortion beyond the new law, which supporters called the “heartbeat bill” because it bans abortions after an ultrasound can detect cardiac activity in an embryo. One of the candidates for Larson’s seat, Mark Dorazio, says on his website that he “fully support[s] Texas’ recent Heartbeat Bill and will continue to support legislation that seeks to end abortion altogether.”

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Disclosure: Politico, Planned Parenthood and Annie’s List have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/03/henry-cuellar-jessica-cisneros-texas-aboriton-roe-wade/.

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Oath Keepers involved in Jan. 6 attack sought to protect US Rep. Ronny Jackson of Texas, texts show

By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON — In the most violent hour of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, alleged conspirators in the attack who were aligned with the far-right group the Oath Keepers discussed providing security for U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson, an Amarillo Republican, according to text messages made public in newly released court documents.

“Ronnie Jackson (TX) office inside Capitol - he needs OK help. Anyone inside?” texted an unidentified person at 3 p.m., presumably referring to the Oath Keepers as “OK.”

“Hopefully they can help. Dr. Jackson,” another person wrote at 3:03 p.m.

A few minutes later, there was another call to provide help for the Texas congressman.

“Dr. Ronnie Jackson - on the move. Needs protection. If anyone inside cover him,” a person texted at 3:08 p.m. and included a photo that could not be seen from the court documents.

“He has critical data to protect,” the person added.

At 3:10, Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, responded to the text citing Jackson and instructed a person to “Give him my cell.”

Rhodes was arrested earlier this year in Little Elm, accused of conspiring with members of his organization and others to oppose the transfer of presidential power by force.

A spokesperson for Jackson said in a statement that the congressman did not know the people texting about him.

“Like many public figures, Rep. Jackson is frequently talked about by people he does not know,” a Jackson spokesperson said in a statement. “He does not know nor has he ever spoken to the people in question. In fact, he stayed behind with Capitol Police to help defend the House Floor and was one of the last Members to be evacuated.”

“The liberal media’s attempt to drag him into a ‘story’ and make him part of something he has nothing to do with is yet another example of why millions of Americans are exhausted by the relentless, biased coverage of January 6th and its continued use as a political tool,” the spokesperson added.

The documents were filed as part of the case against Ed Vallejo, an Arizona man linked to the Oath Keepers who allegedly helped coordinate an arsenal of weapons and ammunition at a Virginia hotel the day before the attack. Vallejo is one of two people identified in that text chain.

The Oath Keepers claim to represent tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans under the pretense of defending the U.S. Constitution. The group is, in effect, one of the largest far-right, anti-government groups that peddles in baseless conspiracy theories.

Before his time in Congress, Jackson served in the Navy and as the White House physician for Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.

The tranche of text messages reveals Oath Keepers were also interested in protecting other Trump allies involved in efforts to overturn the election results, including Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Ali Alexander and Michael Flynn.

At the time these texts were sent, the certification of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College vote, normally a ceremonial affair, was upended, with members of Congress fleeing the Capitol in terror. The minutes before and after these texts marked the peak moment of threat to members of Congress. The Senate chamber had been breached, as had U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, where staffers were barricading themselves against intruders calling for Pelosi.

Many House members at that point were still in their chamber, with a swarm of intruders trying to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, just off the House floor. At approximately 2:44 p.m., a Capitol Police officer shot Ashlie Babbitt as she attempted to breach the door into the Speaker’s Lobby, where House members were congregated.

Around this time, members on the floor barricaded themselves in the chamber. Several Texas Republicans with military and law enforcement backgrounds, including Jackson, held the door shut, according to a witness account U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, posted on Facebook that day.

“I serve with heroes,” Fallon wrote of Jackson and other Texans who stayed behind. “My Texas GOP colleagues have been my friends and now they are my heroes!!!”

Jackson was among a majority of Texas Republicans who voted to object to certifying the Electoral College votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona when the House was called back that evening after the Capitol had been secured.

On the one-year anniversary of the insurrection in January, Jackson said the individuals who breached the Capitol should be prosecuted, but he criticized the bipartisan Jan. 6 investigation committee.

“Look, I don’t think anybody was a domestic terrorist, that I’m aware of, yet,” he told MyHighPlains.com. “That hasn’t been proven at all. I think that the people who entered the Capitol forcibly, the people who destroyed property, the people who broke windows and knocked down doors, they need to be held accountable, absolutely.

“But this whole pursuing this thing like it was Pearl Harbor or 9/11, which is what the Dems are pushing out today, is absolutely ridiculous,” he added.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/19/oath-keepers-ronny-jackson-texas-insurrection/.

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Texts show US Rep. Chip Roy sought evidence of election fraud in 2020, argued against attempts to block certification

By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

"Texts show U.S. Rep. Chip Roy sought evidence of election fraud in 2020, argued against attempts to block certification" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, expressed an early eagerness to contest the 2020 presidential election, while also privately pushing for real evidence to be the basis for any challenge and later urging former President Donald Trump to "call everyone off" the effort to block the certification of President Joe Biden's victory.

“If we substitute the will of states through electors with a vote by Congress every 4 years... we have destroyed the electoral college... Respectfully,” Roy texted to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, on Dec. 31, 2020, according to a CNN report.

“Give a statesman speech. End strong,” he added.

CNN obtained and published a series of exchanges between Roy and Meadows ranging from the days after the election to the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a group of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and temporarily blocked Congress from certifying Biden’s electoral victory. The revelations Friday set off an online frenzy around Roy heading into Easter weekend.

The released texts begin on Nov. 5, two days after the 2020 presidential election. At that point, major news organizations had not yet declared Biden the winner, which is the traditional moment when a presidential transition begins.

Because of uncounted mail-in ballots, the races in three states remained uncalled: Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. At that point, Trump’s seeming lead in those states was evaporating by the hour as votes were counted.

“We have no tools / data / information to go out and fight RE: election / fraud. If you need / want it, we all need to know what's going on. Fwiw…,” Roy wrote to Meadows.

The published texts end on Jan. 6, the day the Capitol was stormed as Roy urged Meadows to “Fix this now.”

All through the final months of his term, Trump was seeking to fight the election results, claiming falsely that the victory was stolen. Republicans — including Texans — never found any substantial evidence that widespread fraud occurred, despite oftentimes wild claims to the contrary during the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021. Federal courts repeatedly and consistently shot down attempts to reverse the results.

On Friday, Roy stood by his actions.

“Been off social media this Good Friday, but apparently there’s quite a stir,” Roy said on Twitter. “I’ll say this once. No apologies for my private texts or public positions - to those on the left or right. I stand behind seeking truth, fighting nonsense, & then acting in defense of the Constitution.”

When Roy initially asked for the tools to fight for Trump on Nov. 5, Meadows responded by saying they were working on them and congratulated Roy for his reelection victory. Roy wrote back: “Yessir, thx. Now let's hold GA, & take az & pa!”

But later in the day, Roy began pressing for guidance on how to politically litigate Trump’s cause.

“What's the message? This seems hard to sell,” he wrote.

“Any help on message appreciated,” he later pressed again. “We're all just making generic statements…”

Eventually, Meadows replied: “If observers are not present then votes should not be uploaded. The fair and open process should be subject to observation.”

Two days later, all of the major news networks called the race for Biden.

“If you're still in the game… dude, we need ammo,” Roy wrote to Meadows on Saturday, Nov. 7. “We need fraud examples. We need it this weekend.”

“We are working on exactly that,” Meadows replied.

Roy’s tone became increasingly alarmed that Monday.

On Nov. 9, Roy alerted Meadows that he was traveling to Georgia to see Cleta Mitchell, one of the most active Trump campaign litigators at that point. Roy tweeted a photo with her that same day.

“... let me know what I can do,” Roy wrote to Meadows. “We need a message that isn't wild-eyed.”

Later that day, Roy sent what appeared to be a note intended for an audience of Trump’s inner circle. He urged the president “to tone down the rhetoric” and to “approach the legal challenge firmly, intelligently and effectively without resorting to throwing wild desperate haymakers, or whipping his base into a conspiracy frenzy.”

He indicated that he still wanted to keep up the fight, saying the goal is to “get the president re-elected by counting every ‘legal’ vote through recounts in states where the margins qualify, and filing lawsuits in states where there is enough circumstantial voting irregularities evidence to justify the legal action.”

Roy then warned Trump allies that if a “final determination” indicated Trump lost, Republicans should “have an orderly transfer of power, and push hard for election process reform so that this does not happen again if we win, full speed ahead on all conservative fronts.”

Again on Nov. 9, Meadows said the Trump campaign is “going to do a manual recount,” likely referring to the Georgia presidential contest.

At that point, a key legal marker for Roy began to emerge, when he told Meadows “Gotta go before certification…” referring to the traditional Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College in Congress.

On Nov. 15, Roy again asked for evidence of voter fraud: “Who has catalogued / is tracking the best case for fraud / issues? Do we know?”

Meadows did not appear to reply.

Four days later, Roy texted to Meadows that “we need substance or people are going to break…,” likely referring to House Republican colleagues. Meadows also did not appear to reply to that.

On Nov. 22, Roy restated his previous warning: “If we don't get logic and reason in this before 11/30 - the GOP conference will bolt (all except the most hard core Trump guys.)”

He also advised that “Frigging Rudy needs to hush... “ an apparent reference to Rudolph Giuliani, who was leading Trump’s legal charge in overturning the election and holding outlandish press conferences in which he was asserting fraud.

For the rest of November, Roy continually checked in with Meadows. He offered legal and political advice while continuing to press for evidence to make the public case for Trump.

“I think there is a strong message that would be louder and better than Sydney/Rudy have been doing, but it's hard to keep up,” he wrote.

There are no released texts between Nov. 26 and Dec. 21.

In that interim, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a failed lawsuit challenging the election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, arguing that those states implemented pandemic-related changes to election procedures that were illegal.

The Supreme Court tossed out that lawsuit on Dec. 11. Fourteen Texas Republican members of the House endorsed Paxton’s challenge. Roy did not.

Roy, who once served as Paxton’s top deputy, described the case at the time as “a dangerous violation of federalism” that “will almost certainly fail.”

A week before the Jan. 6 certification, Roy’s messages to Meadows became more agitated, including the one in which he called for Trump “to call everyone off.”

“If POTUS allows this to occur... we're driving a stake in the heart of the federal republic…” Roy wrote on New Year’s Day 2021.

Two days later, Roy joined in a statement with several of his House Republican colleagues urging against overturning the election. To do so, they argued, would be “to unconstitutionally insert Congress into the center of the presidential election process – would amount to stealing power from the people and the states.”

Roy went one step further to make his point that day, Jan. 3.

He objected to seating colleagues in states that many House Republicans were contesting, arguing that “those representatives were elected through the very same systems — with the same ballot procedures, with the same signature validations, with the same broadly applied decisions of executive and judicial branch officials — as were the electors chosen for the President of the United States under the laws of those states, which have become the subject of national controversy.”

The next day, he texted to Meadows: “I am truly sorry I am in a different spot then you and our brothers re: Wednesday. But I will defend all.”

Around the same time, a different set of texts released Friday involve Roy’s former boss, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In that same window, Cruz led the charge against certifying the election.

He and several Republican senators announced on Jan. 2 that they would challenge certification, at the time a shocking step.

In missives to Meadows on Jan. 3, Cruz’s closest friend in the chamber, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, wrote to Meadows expressing “grave concerns with the way my friend Ted is going about this effort.”

“This will not inure to the benefit of the president,” Lee added.

And then, on Jan. 6, not long after Cruz delivered his remarks challenging the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, violent intruders stormed the Capitol, leaving several people dead and hundreds injured.

Roy, who was present at the Capitol that day, sent Meadows two more messages.

“This is a sh*tshow,” he wrote to the president’s chief of staff. “Fix this now.”

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/15/chip-roy-2020-election-texts/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Democrats are in danger of losing three congressional strongholds in South Texas

Fending off the Republican advance in South Texas this fall was already going to be a taller-than-usual order for Democrats. But few Democrats anticipated it would be this hard.

Thanks to a succession of self-inflicted choices, fallout from redistricting and some flat bizarre circumstances, Democrats are confronting a mind-numbing set of complications in their fight to hold on to three seats in South Texas. And national polling indicates Democrats have no room for error if they want to hold off a Republican challenge in a region that was once a historical Democratic stronghold.

The seats in question are held by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen. A third vacant seat recently belonged to Filemon Vela of Brownsville, who stepped down to take a private sector lobbying job.

“For Democrats, there may simply be too many fires to put out at once,” national political analyst David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, said to The Texas Tribune.

Democrats have been united and energized in recent days in their opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott ordering security checks of trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that has ground trade in the region to a halt.

But they have multiple other vulnerabilities to contend with: In the 28th Congressional District, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign just ahead of his primary campaign. (His attorney has since said that Cuellar is not the target of the investigation.) In the neighboring 15th Congressional District, Gonzalez is vacating his once-safe, now-ripped-apart-by-Republicans district for safer ground, making it even harder for Democrats to hold on to his old seat. And in the 34th Congressional District, Vela abruptly resigned late last month, setting off a summer special election that could put a Republican incumbent on the ballot for that seat in the fall.

Going back to the 1980s, these three neighboring districts have traditionally made up South Texas, a region of the state with a high proportion of Hispanic voters that has leaned left politically. Emerging from the Rio Grande, each district stretches from border town population centers north through ranchland.

“Each of the South Texas districts has some unique circumstances, but they could all add up to a big headache for Democrats and make it more difficult to retain control of the House,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst and publisher for Inside Elections.

Nationally, Democrats have a slim margin of control in the House, and even losing one South Texas seat could jeopardize Democrats’ hold on the gavel. Currently, there are 23 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the Texas U.S. House delegation.

Per Wasserman, who rates the competitiveness of U.S. House races for a living, Democratic circumstances are becoming dire.

“President Biden's anemic approval ratings with Hispanic voters and on the immigration issue could already be putting TX-15 out of reach (now that it's a Trump seat), and the FBI raid and a Vela-triggered special election are massive distractions for Democrats in TX-28 and TX-34, respectively,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

House Democratic operatives say they’re ready for the fight.

Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there are “challenges and opportunities in South Texas” and Democrats are not taking anything for granted.

“We’re confident in our Democrats in South Texas and our ability to run smart, nimble campaigns that will win in November,” she added.

34th Congressional District

Vela came to office in 2012 after a fresh round of reapportionment created the new 34th District.

He announced in March 2021 that he wouldn’t seek reelection in his district. But he upgraded his retirement announcement to a full-blown resignation on March 31, vacating his office nine months earlier than expected.

That move set off what will be a confusing special election in which the winner will hold the seat for only a matter of months, while creating an opportunity for Republicans to gain an advantage for the main event in November where they will face a more difficult district.

District 34 was redrawn by the Legislature last year to be a more safe seat for a Democrat, making it the Republicans’ hardest South Texas target in November. If the new map had been in place in 2020, President Joe Biden would have carried the district by 16 points.

But Vela’s exit means there will now be a June 14 special election that still adheres to the old district map, where Biden won by only 4 points, which could make it easier for a Republican to win. If a Republican wins the special election, it could boost their name recognition when they compete again in November.

Democrats are now dealing with a resulting scramble in South Texas.

Gonzalez is running for Vela’s open seat in November — after switching districts because redistricting tilted his district boundaries toward Republicans. Gonzalez already declined to run in the special election, given that he is still a sitting member of Congress.

There’s also little incentive for other Democrats to run for the special election. At best a candidate would be able to hold the office for a few months while not being allowed to run for reelection for the full term in November, since that primary has already been settled. Gonzalez won the Democratic primary for Vela’s seat in March.

“I wish we had a member till the end of the year,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “But it is what it is, and under the circumstances we gotta deal with what we have.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are giddy about the special election contest. The GOP nominee for the two-year term, Mayra Flores, is in the race.

“We see an opportunity to try and pick off this seat in the special,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC that controls much of the party’s House campaign general election spending.

“And if Mayra Flores wins, it gives her a significant jump-start of a fall campaign against a weak candidate in Vicente Gonzalez,” he added.

For Republicans, the stakes are historic: Should Flores win the special election, she will become the first Republican Latina elected to Congress from Texas. If that’s the case, her fall campaign against Gonzalez would mark the first member-versus-member federal race in Texas since 2004, when Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Frost for a newly drawn Dallas seat after a mid-decade round of redistricting.

It is unclear how much Democrats will spend on a special election.

“Why would we want to spend a boatload of money for an election that is meaningless?” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said of the special election in an interview. “There’s not a doubt anywhere that Vicente Gonzalez is going to be sworn in in January of 2023.”

The most formidable Democrat running in the special election is former Cameron County justice of the peace and commissioner Dan Sanchez, who announced his own campaign last week.

Gonzalez, who will face Flores in November for the two-year term no matter what comes to pass over the summer, predicted a Democratic victory in the special election that “will take the wind out of the sail of most of the Republicans in South Texas, after we win that special.”

“It’ll be a preview of what’s coming in November,” he added.

For his part, Vela said he’s not worried that his exit will hurt Democrats’ chances for retaining the seat.

“Vicente is going to slaughter Mayra Flores in the November election,” Vela said in an interview on his last day in Congress. “I don’t think it’s going to be even near close.”

Flores responded in kind via text: “Congressmen Vela and Gonzalez will find out the hard way that South Texas Hispanics know the national Democratic Party has abandoned us in favor of radical policies that harm our communities.”

15th Congressional District

First elected in 2016, Gonzalez ran for Congress when the 15th District was once a safe Democratic seat.

This past fall, Republican state lawmakers gutted that original 15th District in redistricting, turning it from a seat Biden narrowly carried in 2020 to one that Trump would have won by almost 3 points. Gonzalez secured the 34th District nomination on March 1.

The destabilization of the 15th District is a direct result of Republican redistricting. Gonzalez did not flee his old seat for a friendlier one. Republicans did it for him, drawing a conspicuous peninsula out of the 34th District to bring in the Gonzalez residence, separating him from nearly all of his old constituents.

Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, and his move leaves behind an open-seat race for the 15th District, now the most endangered Democratic-held seat in Texas.

The Republican emphasis is on the 15th District, demonstrated by GOP nominee Monica de la Cruz Hernandez’s designation as a House GOP “Young Gun,” or top-tier candidate. GOP activity could expand further, though, as campaign committees are known to add candidates to these lists over the course of the cycle.

Two Democrats are battling it out in the May runoff: attorney Ruben Ramirez and businesswoman Michelle Vallejo.

Vallejo has the backing of state and national groups and politicians, including EMILY’s List, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston and state Reps. Terry Canales of Edinburg and Mando Martinez of Weslaco. Ramirez has endorsements from Gonzalez, Vote Vets PAC and the Blue Dog Democrats, a group that pushes for moderates. Both candidates have union endorsements.

More broadly, Gonzalez told the Tribune that national Democratic groups were failing South Texas Democrats. He called the DCCC, a member-driven institution with which he has clashed in the past, “asleep at the wheel when it comes to South Texas.”

But there is an equitable amount of Democratic frustration on Capitol Hill for having to deal with the open-seat race and the Vela vacancy.

DCCC staffers say the committee has hired two staffers in the 15th District and the committee is in the process of expanding that staff and opening a headquarters there as well.

28th Congressional District

And then there is Laredo.

In January, the FBI raided Cuellar's home and campaign office. The FBI has yet to elaborate on why it conducted the raids so close to the election, a highly controversial move by the Department of Justice.

Cuellar has proclaimed his innocence. But six weeks later, he found himself in the first Democratic runoff of his congressional career.

Cuellar’s attorney Joshua Berman told the Tribune that a DOJ official told him that Cuellar was not the target of the investigation. The DOJ did not comment when asked to verify the claim.

But it was not merely the ugliness of an unexplained raid. For the last three years, liberals have been trying to chase Cuellar out of office and spending big against him. Their candidate is attorney Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Cuellar two years ago.

She is at the vanguard of the progressive left in Texas, but she is running in a district where many Catholic voters do not agree with her social positions — particularly on abortion.

“It’s not so much a problem that there would be no incumbent running, it’s that Cuellar’s rival could be too far left for the general electorate,” said Wasserman, the political analyst, reflecting a consensus that Republicans privately hold.

Cisneros’ campaign manager Regina Monge said pundits like Wasserman have it all wrong.

“Voters like Jessica because she’s independent, not accepting a dime of corporate money and represents change from the status quo. She’s focused on the issues that matter to South Texans: health care and good jobs,” she said.

Republicans Cassy Garcia — a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and activist Sandra Whitten are currently in a runoff election for the GOP nod to take on whomever wins the Cuellar-Cisneros nomination fight. Garcia recently picked up an endorsement from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Republican enthusiasm

House Republicans argue Democrats’ South Texas problems are rooted in policy. Ever since Democrats underperformed in 2020, a widespread consensus settled on the notion that positions like defunding the police and the Green New Deal from out-of-state politicians did significant damage to the party in South Texas.

“South Texas has become Democrats’ worst nightmare,” wrote House GOP campaign spokesperson Torunn Sinclair, blaming Democratic policies on the border, energy and economy in an email to the Tribune. “Trends show South Texas is already leaning Republican, and Democrats have done nothing to reverse the trend, and their policies are making it worse.”

Moses Mercado, a Washington-based Democratic lobbyist who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, blames Republican control of redistricting for much of the South Texas turbulence.

“This is their dream,” he said of Republican ambitions in South Texas. “They created the mess.”

What is clear: Both parties are organizing here in ways they have not before. National party staffers are on the ground, and the cheap television markets will likely feature political commercials on loop by September.

“We’re changing how we do business in South Texas this cycle,” said Robinson, the House Democratic campaign spokesperson. “The DCCC is reaching voters earlier than ever before, we’re being intentional about how we communicate with Hispanic voters in the Valley and we’re resuming in-person organizing after Democrats put public health over politics in 2020.”


We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

Democrats are in danger of losing three congressional strongholds in South Texas

WASHINGTON — Fending off the Republican advance in South Texas this fall was already going to be a taller-than-usual order for Democrats. But few Democrats anticipated it would be this hard.

Thanks to a succession of self-inflicted choices, fallout from redistricting and some flat bizarre circumstances, Democrats are confronting a mind-numbing set of complications in their fight to hold on to three seats in South Texas. And national polling indicates Democrats have no room for error if they want to hold off a Republican challenge in a region that was once a historical Democratic stronghold.

The seats in question are held by U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen. A third vacant seat recently belonged to Filemon Vela of Brownsville, who stepped down to take a private sector lobbying job.

“For Democrats, there may simply be too many fires to put out at once,” national political analyst David Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, said to The Texas Tribune.

Democrats have been united and energized in recent days in their opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott ordering security checks of trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that has ground trade in the region to a halt.

But they have multiple other vulnerabilities to contend with: In the 28th Congressional District, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign just ahead of his primary campaign. (His attorney has since said that Cuellar is not the target of the investigation.) In the neighboring 15th Congressional District, Gonzalez is vacating his once-safe, now-ripped-apart-by-Republicans district for safer ground, making it even harder for Democrats to hold on to his old seat. And in the 34th Congressional District, Vela abruptly resigned late last month, setting off a summer special election that could put a Republican incumbent on the ballot for that seat in the fall.

Going back to the 1980s, these three neighboring districts have traditionally made up South Texas, a region of the state with a high proportion of Hispanic voters that has leaned left politically. Emerging from the Rio Grande, each district stretches from border town population centers north through ranchland.

“Each of the South Texas districts has some unique circumstances, but they could all add up to a big headache for Democrats and make it more difficult to retain control of the House,” said Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst and publisher for Inside Elections.

Nationally, Democrats have a slim margin of control in the House, and even losing one South Texas seat could jeopardize Democrats’ hold on the gavel. Currently, there are 23 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the Texas U.S. House delegation.

Per Wasserman, who rates the competitiveness of U.S. House races for a living, Democratic circumstances are becoming dire.

“President Biden's anemic approval ratings with Hispanic voters and on the immigration issue could already be putting TX-15 out of reach (now that it's a Trump seat), and the FBI raid and a Vela-triggered special election are massive distractions for Democrats in TX-28 and TX-34, respectively,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

House Democratic operatives say they’re ready for the fight.

Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said there are “challenges and opportunities in South Texas” and Democrats are not taking anything for granted.

“We’re confident in our Democrats in South Texas and our ability to run smart, nimble campaigns that will win in November,” she added.

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith moderates a discussion with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. </p data-verified=

Vela, D-Brownsville, has represented Texas’ Congressional District 34 since 2013. In the 114th Congress, he sat on the House Agriculture and Homeland Security committees and served as co-chairman of the Congressional Border Caucus." src="https://thumbnails.texastribune.org/R5yG0xR9xQTRK5KE5D5AYUT5mHE=/375x251/smart/filters:quality(75)/https://static.texastribune.org/media/images/2017/02/15/ShelbyKnowles-20.jpg">

Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith moderated a discussion with former U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, in 2017. Vela announced his resignation this year on March 31. Credit: Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

34th Congressional District

Vela came to office in 2012 after a fresh round of reapportionment created the new 34th District.

He announced in March 2021 that he wouldn’t seek reelection in his district. But he upgraded his retirement announcement to a full-blown resignation on March 31, vacating his office nine months earlier than expected.

That move set off what will be a confusing special election in which the winner will hold the seat for only a matter of months, while creating an opportunity for Republicans to gain an advantage for the main event in November where they will face a more difficult district.

District 34 was redrawn by the Legislature last year to be a more safe seat for a Democrat, making it the Republicans’ hardest South Texas target in November. If the new map had been in place in 2020, President Joe Biden would have carried the district by 16 points.

But Vela’s exit means there will now be a June 14 special election that still adheres to the old district map, where Biden won by only 4 points, which could make it easier for a Republican to win. If a Republican wins the special election, it could boost their name recognition when they compete again in November.

Democrats are now dealing with a resulting scramble in South Texas.

Gonzalez is running for Vela’s open seat in November — after switching districts because redistricting tilted his district boundaries toward Republicans. Gonzalez already declined to run in the special election, given that he is still a sitting member of Congress.

There’s also little incentive for other Democrats to run for the special election. At best a candidate would be able to hold the office for a few months while not being allowed to run for reelection for the full term in November, since that primary has already been settled. Gonzalez won the Democratic primary for Vela’s seat in March.

“I wish we had a member till the end of the year,” Gonzalez said in an interview. “But it is what it is, and under the circumstances we gotta deal with what we have.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are giddy about the special election contest. The GOP nominee for the two-year term, Mayra Flores, is in the race.

“We see an opportunity to try and pick off this seat in the special,” said Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC that controls much of the party’s House campaign general election spending.

“And if Mayra Flores wins, it gives her a significant jump-start of a fall campaign against a weak candidate in Vicente Gonzalez,” he added.

For Republicans, the stakes are historic: Should Flores win the special election, she will become the first Republican Latina elected to Congress from Texas. If that’s the case, her fall campaign against Gonzalez would mark the first member-versus-member federal race in Texas since 2004, when Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Martin Frost for a newly drawn Dallas seat after a mid-decade round of redistricting.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, speaks to the crowd at a campaign rally for then-senate candidate Beto O'Rourke at H-E-B Park in Edinburg in 2018.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, speaks to the crowd at a campaign rally for then-senate candidate Beto O'Rourke at H-E-B Park in Edinburg in 2018. Credit: Douglas Young for The Texas Tribune

Mayra Flores stands outside of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen on Oct. 16, 2021. Flores used to vote Democratically until 2010 and has been involved in politics since 2016.

Mayra Flores stands outside of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen on Oct. 16, 2021. Flores used to vote Democratically until 2010 and has been involved in politics since 2016. Credit: Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune

First: U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, speaks to the crowd at a campaign rally for then-senate candidate Beto O’Rourke at Edinburg in 2018. Last: Mayra Flores stands outside of the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in McAllen on October 2021. Gonzalez and Flores are running for Vela’s open seat in November. Credit: Douglas Young and Michael Gonzalez for The Texas Tribune

It is unclear how much Democrats will spend on a special election.

“Why would we want to spend a boatload of money for an election that is meaningless?” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said of the special election in an interview. “There’s not a doubt anywhere that Vicente Gonzalez is going to be sworn in in January of 2023.”

The most formidable Democrat running in the special election is former Cameron County justice of the peace and commissioner Dan Sanchez, who announced his own campaign last week.

Gonzalez, who will face Flores in November for the two-year term no matter what comes to pass over the summer, predicted a Democratic victory in the special election that “will take the wind out of the sail of most of the Republicans in South Texas, after we win that special.”

“It’ll be a preview of what’s coming in November,” he added.

For his part, Vela said he’s not worried that his exit will hurt Democrats’ chances for retaining the seat.

“Vicente is going to slaughter Mayra Flores in the November election,” Vela said in an interview on his last day in Congress. “I don’t think it’s going to be even near close.”

Flores responded in kind via text: “Congressmen Vela and Gonzalez will find out the hard way that South Texas Hispanics know the national Democratic Party has abandoned us in favor of radical policies that harm our communities.”

15th Congressional District

First elected in 2016, Gonzalez ran for Congress when the 15th District was once a safe Democratic seat.

This past fall, Republican state lawmakers gutted that original 15th District in redistricting, turning it from a seat Biden narrowly carried in 2020 to one that Trump would have won by almost 3 points. Gonzalez secured the 34th District nomination on March 1.

The destabilization of the 15th District is a direct result of Republican redistricting. Gonzalez did not flee his old seat for a friendlier one. Republicans did it for him, drawing a conspicuous peninsula out of the 34th District to bring in the Gonzalez residence, separating him from nearly all of his old constituents.

Members of Congress don’t have to live in their districts, and his move leaves behind an open-seat race for the 15th District, now the most endangered Democratic-held seat in Texas.

The Republican emphasis is on the 15th District, demonstrated by GOP nominee Monica de la Cruz Hernandez’s designation as a House GOP “Young Gun,” or top-tier candidate. GOP activity could expand further, though, as campaign committees are known to add candidates to these lists over the course of the cycle.

Michelle Vallejo, U.S. Representative District 15 Candidate, responds to questions during a Futuro RGV candidate forum in McAllen on Jan. 11, 2022.

Michelle Vallejo, candidate for Congressional District 15, responds to questions during a Futuro RGV candidate forum in McAllen on Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Ruben Ramirez, U.S. Representative District 15 Candidate, responds to questions during a Futuro RGV candidate forum in McAllen, Texas on Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Verónica Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

First: Michelle Vallejo, candidate for the 15th Congressional District, responds to questions during a Futuro RGV candidate forum in McAllen on Jan. 11. Last: Ruben Ramirez, also a candidate for the 15th Congressional District, speaks at the Futuro RGV candidate forum. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Two Democrats are battling it out in the May runoff: attorney Ruben Ramirez and businesswoman Michelle Vallejo.

Vallejo has the backing of state and national groups and politicians, including EMILY’s List, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston and state Reps. Terry Canales of Edinburg and Mando Martinez of Weslaco. Ramirez has endorsements from Gonzalez, Vote Vets PAC and the Blue Dog Democrats, a group that pushes for moderates. Both candidates have union endorsements.

More broadly, Gonzalez told the Tribune that national Democratic groups were failing South Texas Democrats. He called the DCCC, a member-driven institution with which he has clashed in the past, “asleep at the wheel when it comes to South Texas.”

But there is an equitable amount of Democratic frustration on Capitol Hill for having to deal with the open-seat race and the Vela vacancy.

DCCC staffers say the committee has hired two staffers in the 15th District and the committee is in the process of expanding that staff and opening a headquarters there as well.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-TX, talks with supporters at an event featuring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at his campaign headquarters in Laredo on Feb. 22, 2020.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, talks with supporters at an event featuring U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at his campaign headquarters in Laredo in 2020. The FBI raided Cuellar's home and campaign office in January 2022. Credit: Robin Jerstad for The Texas Tribune

28th Congressional District

And then there is Laredo.

In January, the FBI raided Cuellar's home and campaign office. The FBI has yet to elaborate on why it conducted the raids so close to the election, a highly controversial move by the Department of Justice.

Cuellar has proclaimed his innocence. But six weeks later, he found himself in the first Democratic runoff of his congressional career.

Cuellar’s attorney Joshua Berman told the Tribune that a DOJ official told him that Cuellar was not the target of the investigation. The DOJ did not comment when asked to verify the claim.

But it was not merely the ugliness of an unexplained raid. For the last three years, liberals have been trying to chase Cuellar out of office and spending big against him. Their candidate is attorney Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Cuellar two years ago.

She is at the vanguard of the progressive left in Texas, but she is running in a district where many Catholic voters do not agree with her social positions — particularly on abortion.

“It’s not so much a problem that there would be no incumbent running, it’s that Cuellar’s rival could be too far left for the general electorate,” said Wasserman, the political analyst, reflecting a consensus that Republicans privately hold.

Jessica Cisneros talks with to her supporters at her campaign headquarters before they head out to canvass in Laredo on Feb. 19, 2022.

Jessica Cisneros talks with to her supporters at her campaign headquarters before they head out to canvass in Laredo on Feb. 19, 2022. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, campaigns on Super Tuesday in Laredo on March 3, 2020.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, campaigns on Super Tuesday in Laredo on March 3, 2020. Credit: Ulysses Romero for The Texas Tribune

First: Jessica Cisneros talks to supporters at her campaign headquarters before they head out to canvass in Laredo on Feb. 19. Last: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar campaigns on Super Tuesday in Laredo in 2020. Credit: Jessica Rodriguez and Ulysses Romero for The Texas Tribune

Cisneros’ campaign manager Regina Monge said pundits like Wasserman have it all wrong.

“Voters like Jessica because she’s independent, not accepting a dime of corporate money and represents change from the status quo. She’s focused on the issues that matter to South Texans: health care and good jobs,” she said.

Republicans Cassy Garcia — a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — and activist Sandra Whitten are currently in a runoff election for the GOP nod to take on whomever wins the Cuellar-Cisneros nomination fight. Garcia recently picked up an endorsement from U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Republican enthusiasm

House Republicans argue Democrats’ South Texas problems are rooted in policy. Ever since Democrats underperformed in 2020, a widespread consensus settled on the notion that positions like defunding the police and the Green New Deal from out-of-state politicians did significant damage to the party in South Texas.

“South Texas has become Democrats’ worst nightmare,” wrote House GOP campaign spokesperson Torunn Sinclair, blaming Democratic policies on the border, energy and economy in an email to the Tribune. “Trends show South Texas is already leaning Republican, and Democrats have done nothing to reverse the trend, and their policies are making it worse.”

Moses Mercado, a Washington-based Democratic lobbyist who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, blames Republican control of redistricting for much of the South Texas turbulence.

“This is their dream,” he said of Republican ambitions in South Texas. “They created the mess.”

What is clear: Both parties are organizing here in ways they have not before. National party staffers are on the ground, and the cheap television markets will likely feature political commercials on loop by September.

“We’re changing how we do business in South Texas this cycle,” said Robinson, the House Democratic campaign spokesperson. “The DCCC is reaching voters earlier than ever before, we’re being intentional about how we communicate with Hispanic voters in the Valley and we’re resuming in-person organizing after Democrats put public health over politics in 2020.”

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/04/14/south-texas-democrats-cuellar-vela-gonzalez/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas Republicans who opposed resolution supporting NATO criticize and question its language

With Russia waging a brutal war against Ukraine, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted this week to reaffirm “its unequivocal support” of NATO, the defense alliance created more than 70 years ago to counter Russian aggression in Europe.

But a noteworthy bloc of 11 Texas Republicans voted against the nonbinding measure that passed with bipartisan support. Two Texas representatives say their opposition was rooted in a measure calling for a Center for Democratic Resilience.

That institution would be at NATO headquarters in Belgium and would “serve as a resource and a clearinghouse of best practices and cross-fertilisation on democratic benchmarks available to member, partner, and aspirant states,” according to NATO’s website.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth said the resolution’s language about such a center was vague and she criticized Democratic leadership for rushing the vote before members could understand it better.

“Some of the things they’re asking us to vote on now seemed to be hurried up so much that there seemed to be very little presentation and very little time to really analyze it and know how important those things are,” she said. “I could’ve made a mistake on that one. It was a call.”

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin in a statement described the center as a “distraction to NATO’s mission.” He argued the “center will be weaponized against member countries — such as the United States — who enact policies contrary to the leftist orthodoxy that now unfortunately permeates most of Western Europe.”

Roy didn’t elaborate on how he thought the center would be used in such a way. He said in his statement that “it is imperative for the United States to stand side by side with our NATO allies” rather than “passing toothless resolutions.”

“NATO should be focused on military strength — not on empowering international organizations to target the internal activities of sovereign nations under the vague guise of illiberalism or human rights,” he said.

The resolution was a show of moral support and did not include any funding mechanisms or measures that would have sent aid to NATO or Ukraine.

The nine other Texas Republicans voting against the resolution were U.S. Reps. Brian Babin of Woodville, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, John Carter of Round Rock, Michael Cloud of Victoria, Lance Gooden of Terrell, Louie Gohmert of Tyler, Troy Nehls of Richmond, Pete Sessions of Waco and Randy Weber of Friendswood.

None of those nine representatives responded to requests for comment late Wednesday.

NATO, which is an acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a defense alliance that came together after World War II among western European countries and the United States to push back against the Soviet Union’s aggression in the eastern part of the continent.

The resolution’s text called for the U.S. government to uphold NATO’s “founding democratic principles” and the establishment of the Center for Democratic Resilience within its headquarters.

Granger is one of the Texas representatives most steeped in foreign policy, by way of her subcommittee assignments on the House Appropriations Committee. She said she and a handful of fellow GOP members debated whether to vote for the resolution despite what they considered vague language.

“We went back and forth about it,” she said. “We were for it and against it.”

She said her decision to oppose the resolution stemmed from not having time to fully vet it.

“In some of these things, they’re very, very serious, and we’re not taking the time … to have it ahead of time, to be able to discuss these things and see the alternatives,” Granger said.

U.S. Rep. Mike Turner is an Ohio Republican who helped conceive of the Center for Democratic Resilience and spoke about it on the House floor Tuesday.

“This center would monitor challenges and threats to democracy, natural rights and the rule of law among member nations,” he said. “Partnering with democracy-promotion organizations, the center will assist member states and aspiring member states to preserve and foster democracy among their ranks.”

For decades, many American conservatives groused about NATO — most notable among them was former President Donald Trump. The goal for each NATO country is to spend 2% of its GDP on its national defense by 2024.

That alliance is having a renaissance in Europe, as the United States and its allies are trying to prevent the Russian invasion from spilling into NATO countries. Most mainstream foreign policy experts credit NATO’s efficacy for containing the Russian aggression to Ukraine.

Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin is the top House Republican on foreign affairs and voted to support NATO. On Wednesday, he sported a blue-and-gold Ukrainian ribbon on his suit jacket at the Capitol.

He told The Texas Tribune that NATO countries are “stepping up” in ways some countries had lagged before. A frequent conservative critique of NATO is that many European countries fall short of the expected standard that all member countries spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense.

“NATO is more unified than it’s ever been. Germany now is putting in 2% of their GDP. And they are sending weapons and they are training,” he said.

NATO bonds further frayed in recent years, as Trump regularly railed against the alliance. But his criticism did lead to several NATO countries deciding to increase their defense spending.

Everything changed six weeks ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, a country on the Eastern European frontier that long aspired to join the organization. Several NATO countries located near Ukraine, like Poland, are most impacted by the refugee exodus from Ukraine.

At the heart of NATO is an agreement among all 30 countries known as Article 5, which states an attack on one NATO member country is an attack on all NATO allies. The 9/11 attacks on the United States are the single time in the alliance’s existence that Article 5 has been invoked.

Former NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison addressed the vote in an interview with the Tribune on Wednesday.

Hutchison carefully noted she had not read the language in the House resolution but insisted the political establishment is behind NATO.

“I know we have bipartisan support for NATO — I know that,” she told Tribune CEO Evan Smith, pointing to her former colleagues in the U.S. Senate.

“We have that bipartisan support,” she later added. “I’ve seen it.”

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, seemed mystified that so many Texans voted against a resolution supporting NATO, noting that the last two Republican presidents prior to Trump — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — were NATO boosters.

“I really don’t know what to make of it,” he said. “We’ve seen how important it is, and I find it really hard to understand.”

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

IN OTHER NEWS: Watch Democrats give standing ovation, while GOP members walk out as Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history

Democrats give standing ovation, while GOP members walk out as Ketanji Brown Jackson makes history www.youtube.com

Filemon Vela steps down -- setting up a heated battle for his South Texas district

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela will formally resign from Congress late Thursday in a move that officially kicks off what’s expected to be a scramble to replace him in a special election.

Vela, D-Brownsville, previously announced his intention to step down before the end of his term because he intends on taking a job with Akin Gump, a prominent lobbying and law firm.

"I write to inform you that I have notified Texas Governor Greg Abbott of my resignation from the U.S. House of Representatives, effective today at 11:59 PM EST," he wrote to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "It has been a profound honor to represent the people of the 34th Congressional District of Texas for the last nine years, and my distinct pleasure to serve under your leadership."

Now that the resignation is official, Gov. Greg Abbott has the power to set a special election date — a development that Republicans are relishing as part of their offensive targeting three congressional seats in South Texas this fall.

A special election will be a complicated affair.

Whoever wins will only serve for the remainder of Vela’s unfinished term, which is a matter of months. The November general election will determine who serves the next full term representing the 34th Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is the Democratic nominee for that next two-year term that begins in January. He currently represents the nearby 15th Congressional District and switched to the 34th District in this year’s general election due to redistricting. He has said he has no plans to resign from his current seat to run in a special election for Vela’s unfinished term.

Because it’s too late for new general election candidates, any other Democrats interested in running for the seat in the special election will only be able to hold it for a matter of months. Republicans are already eyeing the special election as an opportunity to show their growing strength in the region.

GOP activist Mayra Flores is the Republican nominee for the November campaign, and she intends to run in the special election. If she won that special election, she and Gonzalez would face off in a rare U.S. House race between two sitting members in November.

Vela carried the district in 2020 by about 14 points.

We can’t wait to welcome you in person and online to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol from Sept. 22-24. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/31/filemon-vela-resignation/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

O’Rourke calls Abbott a 'thug' who’s 'got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas'

Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic nominee for Texas governor, called the Republican incumbent, Greg Abbott, a “a thug” and an “authoritarian” on Saturday and compared Texas energy executives to Russian oligarchs in a blistering critique that presages an election that is about eight months away.

“I just had a chance to meet with the ambassador from the EU,” O’Rourke told Evan Smith, the CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, in a crowded hall at the South by Southwest festival. “We talked about the fact that you’re seeing the continued rise of authoritarians and thugs across the world. And we have our own, right here, in the state of Texas.”

Smith asked, “Greg Abbott is a thug in your mind?”

O’Rourke replied, "He’s a thug, he’s an authoritarian.

“Let me make the case. Not only could this guy, through his own incompetence, not keep the lights on in the energy capital of the planet last February, but when people like Kelcy Warren and other energy company CEOs made than $11 billion in profit over five days — selling gas for 200 times the going rate; not only did he not claw back those illegal profits; not only was there no justice for more than 700 people who were killed, who literally froze to deaths in their homes, outside, in their cars, people who are paying now tens of billions of dollars cumulatively to pay for the property damage that the flooding that ensued caused in their homes, but he’s taking millions of dollars in payoffs from these same people. I mean, he’s got his own oligarch here in the state of Texas.”

Abbott’s campaign said in a statement, “It’s unfortunate Beto O’Rourke continues to run a campaign based on fear mongering and tearing down Texas.”

Warren is the billionaire CEO of Dallas-based Energy Transfer, a pipeline giant that made an estimated $2.4 billion from skyrocketing natural gas prices during the February 2021 snowstorms, which knocked out electricity across much of the state.

Last month, Warren sued O’Rourke for defamation, which the candidate described as an effort to silence him. (Warren’s lawyers and spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The state estimates that at least 246 people died in the snowstorms, though a BuzzFeed analysis found that the toll could be as high as 702. Last month, the state’s power grid manager testified in court that upon Abbott’s request, he kept wholesale electricity prices high in the latter days of the storm in an effort to prevent more rolling blackouts. That was done to incentivize companies to keep producing power. A spokesperson for Abbott said that was needed to “prevent the loss of life.”

Drawing the Russia analogy further, O’Rourke linked new restrictions on voting access in Texas to President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian crackdown in Russia.

“You think this stuff only exists in Russia or in other parts of the world? It’s happening right here,” O’Rourke said. “You think they rig elections in other parts of the planet? It is the toughest state in the nation in which to vote, right here.”

It is difficult to assess which state makes voting most difficult, but Texas requires a photo ID, requires registration 30 days before an election, does not make online registration available and does not allow no-excuse early voting. It does allow two weeks of in-person early voting for all registered voters.

In the March 1 primary, which recorded fairly anemic turnout, more than 18,000 mail-ballots were rejected in 16 of the state’s largest counties for failing to meet the new law’s ID requirements.

O’Rourke, 49, represented El Paso for three terms in the U.S. House. He challenged U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, losing by less than 3 percentage points, a remarkable showing in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. In 2019, O’Rourke entered the race for Democratic nominee for president. He struggled to raise much money or get much attention and dropped out later that year.

When confronted with an audience question about why he “bomb[ed] out in 2020,” O’Rourke responded, “I think that’s a pretty accurate description.”

Smith, the moderator, drew attention to a line O’Rourke used in a Democratic presidential debate in September 2019, when he vowed, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

O’Rourke on Saturday dialed back somewhat from his earlier comments, saying that he still didn’t think ordinary citizens should own military-style weapons designed “to kill people on a battlefield,” but acknowledged that if elected he would face a stiff fight from the Legislature over gun rights. He vowed to “find common ground with Republicans on things like universal background checks, safe-storage laws, extreme-risk protection laws,” which allow judges to temporarily remove firearms from people who are at an elevated risk of harming themselves or others.

He added, “If I can find the consensus within the Legislature to have a law within the state of Texas that allows us to buy back the AR-15s and AK-47s, we will.” Texas last year began allowing people to carry a handgun without a license or training — even though most voters did not support such permitless carry. The prospects for a large-scale gun buyback would seem slim.

After the talk, Mark Miner, Abbott’s communications director, issued a statement pointing out discrepancies between O'Rourke’s comments on Saturday regarding gun buybacks, the “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum-seekers, and President Joe Biden and previous statements he’s made. (O'Rourke recently said he did not want any campaign assistance from Biden, but on Saturday insisted that “he is not a drag on anyone.”)

“It appears if you want Beto to tell the truth, you need to put him in front of out-of-state liberal elitists, not the people of Texas,” Miner said.

Asked whether Biden’s unpopularity in Texas might be a drag on Abbott’s prospects, O’Rourke said that he had been crisscrossing the state and hearing nothing from voters about Biden or his predecessor, President Donald Trump. Voters, he said, wanted to talk about higher utility bills, lack of broadband access in rural areas, the closings of rural hospitals, the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid and diminished spending on public education. He insisted that he would manage to activate first-time voters and energize young voters, two groups that helped propel his surprisingly close race in 2018.

O’Rourke, a supporter of abortion rights, condemned Texas’ near-total ban on abortions as well as recent legislation blocking transgender teenagers from participating in youth sports. He also condemned Abbott’s directive to start child-abuse investigations of families who seek gender-affirming care for their children.

Such controversies were a distraction, O’Rourke said, from a maternal mortality crisis; a shortage of preventive care for women, including cervical cancer screenings; and high rates of teen pregnancy and repeat teen pregnancy. People who see themselves as “pro-life,” he said, should pay attention to the state of the foster care system in Texas, citing a state-contracted facility in Bastrop where girls who had already been victims of sex trafficking were allegedly sexually abused yet again by staff. The shelter was ordered closed Friday.

An audience member asked O’Rourke for his views on marjiuana legalization. Abbott has suggested he would support decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana. Texas remains a far cry from states like California where the sale and use of marijuana are fully legal.

O’Rourke drew laughter and applause when he said that bipartisan consensus might not be hard to coalesce on this issue, given that Republicans, too, like to get high.

Disclosure: South by Southwest and Energy Transfer have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/12/orourke-abbott-thug/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros locked in tight race for South Texas congressional seat

It was too close to call early Wednesday morning to determine whether embattled U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar will be forced into a runoff election with progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros.

At 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, there were still unreported votes in Webb and Bexar in the tight race which has attracted national attention.

Earlier in the night, Cisneros expressed optimism about her performance against the powerful incumbent.

“We’re still waiting for results, but I know at the end of the day, no matter what happens — whether … the victory’s coming today, later tonight or tomorrow or maybe even in May — we are going to win," she said.

In January, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office, but released almost no details about why the bureau targeted the representative. Should it become clear he is not the subject of a criminal investigation, Cuellar could pick up momentum. But on the other hand, more FBI action around Cuellar could make his case to voters all the more difficult.

ABC News reported the raid was part of a federal grand jury probe and that subpoenas reportedly sought records from organizations with ties to Azerbaijan. Cuellar has taken particular interest in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Cuellar has taken trips there and even co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. Subpoenaes also sought records from three Texas-based companies with ties to Cuellar’s wife, Imelda, according to ABC News.

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Prior to the FBI developments, this primary was an intraparty battle that has defined American politics over the last decade. Through Cisneros, national progressives have targeted Cuellar for two cycles. After a narrow, 4-percentage point primary win in 2020, he assembled a much stronger campaign this cycle, only to face national scrutiny after the raids.

Cisneros challenged Cuellar on several fronts, including on his abortion and health care stances. She charged that the nine-term incumbent was too conservative for the district, and she benefited from the support of a national donor network. She also benefited from the endorsements of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and from the influential group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, EMILY's List.

The eventual Democratic nominee will still face a ferocious fight against Republicans in November. After making inroads in South Texas in 2020, Republicans say they're inclined to spend against the Democratic nominee.

The Republican field was equally uncertain. Cassy Garcia, a former staffer to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, led her field Tuesday night, but fell far short of avoiding a runoff. It was unclear early Wednesday who she would face in May.

First elected to public office as a state representative in 1986, Cuellar and his relatives are fixtures within the Laredo community. His brother, Martin Cuellar, is the Webb County sheriff. Their sister, Rosie Cuellar, lost her 2020 reelection bid as a county official in a Democratic primary.

A runoff would likely stoke debate about the propriety of the FBI raids so close to an election. Typically, the U.S. Justice Department avoids such public actions involving sitting officials during election seasons. In Laredo and Washington, many Democrats have raised questions about the FBI’s conduct, particularly because there was no indication as to what spurred the raids.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/02/henry-cuellar-jessica-cisneros-texas-primary-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz ends block on Biden appointments after sanctions issued for Russian gas pipeline

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz will stop blocking President Joe Biden’s State Department nominees now that the administration is implementing sanctions against a company that built a Russian gas pipeline meant to supply Germany with natural gas.

Still, Texas’ junior senator wants the administration and Congress to issue permanent sanctions on the pipeline as Russian President Vladimir Putin mobilizes forces along the Ukraine border. For months, Cruz single-handedly delayed dozens of key State Department nominees to retaliate against a previous Biden decision to drop opposition to the pipeline.

The Nord Stream 2 runs underneath the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany. Cruz and other lawmakers have opposed the pipeline for years and passed sanctions intended to block it.

“Putin believes that Nord Stream 2's activation is a fait accompli now that it has been physically completed, and that any barriers or sanctions are only temporary,” Cruz said. “His aggression toward Ukraine is based on that assessment, and the only way to change his decision calculus is to convince him Nord Stream 2 will never come online.”

Biden last year agreed to drop opposition to the pipeline, which was nearly complete, as a means to improve the relationship between the U.S. and Germany. But as Putin appears to be gearing up for a deeper push into the Ukraine, Cruz and Biden appear to be on the same page.

“Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers,” Biden said in a statement. “These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.”

Biden’s sanctions come after German leaders announced the country would block usage of the pipeline as punishment for a Russian invasion into Ukraine that the Western world is expecting.

“Today’s announcement should be followed by additional steps inside the Biden administration and in Congress to permanently lock in sanctions,” Cruz said.

Last spring, the Biden administration lifted sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and its CEO Matthias Warnig, a Putin ally. The Biden move was widely perceived as an accommodation to Germany, one of the United States’ closest European allies.

Cruz vigorously opposed that action, going so far as to put the matter to a Senate vote earlier this year.

In his statement, Cruz went on to call for more “to be done to deter and counter the threat that Putin poses to our allies in Ukraine and across Europe.”

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement concurring with Cruz.

“Today’s announcement, while long overdue, reflects years of bipartisan efforts and is a step in the right direction,” McCaul said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/23/ted-cruz-ukraine-sanctions-joe-biden-pipeline/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz Senator Ted Cruz speaking with attendees at the 2021 Young Latino Leadership Summit. (Gage Skidmore)

Timing of FBI raid on Henry Cuellar’s home so close to election raises questions

WASHINGTON — The FBI raid at U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s Laredo home made for a damning drama: a swarm of agents descending upon his property with a warrant in hand, emerging later with a computer and plastic bins and bags full of personal belongings.

Those optics aren’t an afterthought for the U.S. Department of Justice. Nor is the timing — which in Cuellar’s case came less than two months before the March 1 primary election. That poor political timing has raised questions among legal experts about why the Justice Department, which had to sign off on such an investigation, didn’t authorize the raid either months before this primary or later in the spring to minimize impact on the election.

“In general, the department has shied away from taking any overt investigative actions against political figures when an election is looming,” said former Justice Department official Emily Pierce. Pierce and other former department officials told The Texas Tribune that the Justice Department is typically sensitive to the devastating power of these images that can cloud a candidate’s reputation before that person can defend themselves in the legal system.

The shadow of a criminal investigation is tough for any elected official to navigate. But Cuellar also happens to be in the fight for his political life in his South Texas Democratic primary, where he’s up for his 10th term in Congress, and facing challengers Jessica Cisneros, an attorney, and Tannya Benavides, an educator.

Cuellar hasn’t been charged with a crime, and he said in a public statement that he’s confident the investigation will clear him of wrongdoing. Furthermore, he’s stressed that he’s all in on the primary race and intends to win reelection.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment for this story, as did Cuellar’s representatives.

Six former Justice Department employees interviewed by the Tribune said the most common reason for an investigation so close to an election was fear of a continuing crime, like destruction of evidence or a flight risk.

“The reasons they might decide to contravene that policy include a reasonable fear that evidence could be lost or destroyed, indications that a subject might be trying to leave the country or anything else that might impair the future of the investigation if they don’t act in a timely way,” Pierce said.

“Without knowing the specifics of the case, it’s impossible to say whether they feared some criminal intent to destroy evidence or whether there was a more benign reason they felt they had to act quickly,” she added.

To be sure, it’s possible the investigation may never yield charges.

“We should not presume that a crime has occurred here or that the government is convinced that a crime has occurred,” Edward Loya Jr., a Dallas-based attorney, said in an email. Loya served in the department’s Public Integrity Section, which handles corruption cases across the country.

“All we know for sure is that the government is gathering information it needs to make an assessment of the allegations with which it has been presented,” he added.

John Bash, a defense attorney who has worked at the Justice Department both in Washington and as a U.S. attorney in Texas, said the department operated under “a rule of thumb” in which the Justice Department avoids indictments and overt investigative activity like searches 60 to 90 days before an election.

“None of that means that sitting members of Congress are above the law, but there’s an interest in making sure DOJ’s role isn’t political and … DOJ is not perceived as being involved in politics,” he said.

There’s precedent for how the Justice Department handles investigations into political figures and also how it’s fumbled in the past.

Democrats remain deeply embittered with the FBI from 2016 and former director James Comey’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information by way of a private email server.

Comey took unprecedented actions as Clinton was running for president, outlining in July 2016 how she and her staff were “extremely careless,” but not criminal. Typically, the department does not explain why it chooses not to indict.

Then 11 days before the election as voters were already casting early voting ballots, Comey announced he was reopening the investigation into Clinton based on new evidence recovered, only to announce on the Sunday before Election Day that the FBI’s recommendation to not prosecute stood.

Many Democrats — and pollsters — point to that moment as critical to Clinton’s loss.

Years later, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 2020 hearing on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. She discussed how her office took special care to avoid the appearance of political interference in an election as her office investigated Trump campaign official Paul Manafort. Manafort was later convicted of tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to disclose a foreign bank account. He was pardoned by President Donald Trump in late 2020, just before he left office.

Yates described giving orders to the FBI to ensure “they weren’t doing anything publicly with respect to Mr. Manafort, even though he was no longer even with the campaign at this point … because that could be unfair to then-candidate Donald Trump.”

“We didn’t take any action, whether it was a case involving a local sheriff or a governor or a senator,” Yates said at the hearing. “We wouldn’t take any action that could potentially have an impact on the election. … It’s not just to be fair to that individual, but also to ensure that the public has confidence that this power is not being used to impact an election.”

Notably, the FBI raid on Cuellar’s house comes during a Democratic administration.

“Given today’s political climate and Congressman Cuellar’s powerful position in Congress, I would be surprised if the Attorney General’s office were not consulted,” Loya said.

James Barragán and Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/01/henry-cuellar-fbi-raid-election/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

New Texas voting laws, political maps could once again require federal approval under US House bill named after John Lewis

The U.S. House on Tuesday passed a bill that could complicate both the coming round of redistricting in Texas and a voting restrictions bill currently under consideration in the state Legislature.

Known as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the bill would reinstate sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were written to protect people of color. Over the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back some of that landmark law's provisions.

The bill passed along party lines, meaning all Democratic Texans in the U.S. House supported it and all Republican delegation members opposed it.

Should the bill also pass the U.S. Senate, it could put states like Texas that have a history of voter discrimination back under a process called federal preclearance. That would require the state to once again obtain federal approval of its political maps and elections changes, like the controversial voting restrictions bill that is currently under consideration in the state Legislature. Preclearance is meant to ensure that any new election laws or rounds of redistricting do not harm people of color.

The federal legislation is one of two bills Texas House Democrats have been advocating for since they fled to Washington, D.C., in July to block the state voting bill poised for passage in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Democratic state lawmakers lobbied Congress to pass federal legislation that would supersede attempts in Texas to restrict voting access.

The federal bill's author, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, is a native of Selma, where law enforcement in 1965 brutally attacked the late civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights activists in what is often called "Bloody Sunday."

Sewell told The Texas Tribune the voting bill moving through the Texas Legislature illustrated the need for her legislation.

"The Texas Legislature's outrageous and anti-democratic attempt to erect deliberate barriers to the ballot box demonstrates exactly why federal oversight is so urgently needed," she said in a statement to the Tribune. "As states like Texas continue their assault on the right to vote, we must ensure that the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is signed into law. There is no time to waste."

The bill aims to address two U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last decade that overturned key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For four decades, a section of that law dictated that states with a history of discrimination had to clear certain changes to elections and political maps through the Justice Department or federal courts in a process known as preclearance.

The federal bill could allow federal officials to closely examine changes to voting laws. That could include reductions in polling locations or hours proposed in the Texas bill, which seeks to ban the drive-thru and overnight voting accommodations created in Harris County last year — which were embraced disproportionately by voters of color. The Texas legislation would also increase vote-by-mail restrictions and give more freedom to partisan poll watchers.

Republicans have touted the Texas elections bill as an election integrity measure to protect the voting process from fraud, even though there is no evidence it occurs on a widespread basis.

The U.S. House's passage of the federal bill Tuesday came amid a rare voting session in August, when the chamber is usually in recess, underscoring how important this bill is for the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The bill could also require federal approval of the coming redraw of the U.S. House districts in Texas, which occurs every decade after the completion of the U.S. census. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is expected to release proposed new political maps this fall. In the past, Texas' redistricting process has come under legal scrutiny for discriminating against people of color and was subject to extensive litigation.

But House Republicans characterized the federal bill as meddling in a jurisdiction that they argue should solely be in the hands of state governments.

"We're going to disenfranchise American voters by taking over the voting across America," said U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Tyler Republican, on the House floor just prior to the Tuesday evening vote. "The Constitution reserves those provisions to the states' legislatures. We shouldn't be doing this."

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas, a voting rights attorney prior to his congressional career, was a key strategist in pushing the bill through Congress.

Allred noted to reporters ahead of the vote that one of his constituents, former President George W. Bush, easily passed a renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006 with overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress.

"Very recently, this was not a partisan issue," he said.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin pushed a Republican counterargument to that point.

"While measures like pre-clearance may have been necessary almost 60 years ago when the [Voting Rights Act] was enacted, current registration and participation levels make it clear that they no longer are," he said in a statement.

This is a far more narrow bill compared to the For the People Act, another federal bill supported by the Texas House Democrats. The For the People Act would dramatically overhaul campaign finance regulations and require independent redistricting commissions, among several other measures.

Few Capitol Hill observers see any scenario in which the For The People Act will pass the Senate.

The Lewis bill also has a tough slog ahead in the Senate, but it is widely seen as the voter access proposal that has the best chance in that chamber. Texas Democrats back in Austin were pleased with a step forward in the Lewis Act.

"Texas House Democrats are grateful to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, bill sponsor Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama) and all members of Congress who voted today to protect the bedrock right of our democracy - and for accelerating this bill's passage following our Caucus' work in Washington, D.C.," Texas House Democratic Chair Chris Turner said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, expressed optimism on Tuesday that the voting bill could pass the Senate.

"There are ongoing conversations between the House and the Senate ... There've been a lot of conversations, a lot of very productive conversations, and so I am optimistic ... that we will be able to see the Senate move forward," she said.

Along with this voting bill, the House also passed on Tuesday a massive spending bill — one that some Democrats branded a "human infrastructure" bill. That legislation harkens back to the anti-poverty policies of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and also seeks to address climate change.

Despite Democratic optimism, it remains unclear whether either bill will pass in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate.

Alexa Ura and Bethany Irvine contributed to this report.

Ted Cruz shuts down federal voting bill before US Senate leaves for recess, dashing Texas Democrats hopes

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WASHINGTON - Despite high hopes and desperate pleas from Texas Democrats, the U.S. Senate failed to move federal voting rights legislation before leaving for summer recess. And it was a Texas Republican — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who blocked the last attempt to vote on a bill before the Senate left town.

During that overnight final session, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, requested unanimous consent from the Senate to immediately consider the For the People Act, a sweeping overhaul of federal elections that would preempt attempts from states to restrict voting access, overhaul campaign finance laws, and end congressional gerrymandering among other provisions.

Only one senator is needed to block a unanimous consent request — a procedural move typically reserved for items that aren't controversial — and Cruz jumped at the opportunity.

"This bill would constitute a federal government takeover of elections...It would strike down virtually every reasonable voter integrity law in the country," Cruz said.

Schumer proposed unanimous consent for two more proposals that would address redistricting and campaign finance, and Cruz also objected to those as motions.

The great hope among many of the more than 50 Texas Democrats who had decamped to the nation's capital this summer was that the U.S. Senate would make tangible progress toward a federal voting rights bill prior to Congress' annual August recess period. The Texas Democrats, who busted the state Legislature's quorum to block GOP voting legislation for the past month, pinned their hopes on Congress because they are the minority party in all branches of state government.

Few Capitol Hill observers anticipated the Senate would vote on a voting access bill this week, and Schumer's motions were perceived as a symbolic nod to voting rights groups.

This quiet period comes as some Texas state House Democrats remain in Washington. The once bustling city that allowed them to hobnob with and lobby the nation's most powerful leaders is now a legislative ghost town.

Capitol Hill leaders are still expected to address voting rights legislation when the Congress returns after Labor Day, and there is some speculation the U.S. House may return to Washington a week early.

Chances are slim that The For The People Act will pass the Senate in its current form. But there remains hope among some Texas and Capitol Hill Democrats that a scaled back bill might have a shot at becoming law.


Texas GOP senators vote against infrastructure bill that could give their state more than $30 billion

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a rare bipartisan initiative Tuesday that would deploy at least $30 billion across the state to repair bridges, build roads and increase broadband internet access, without the support of either senator from Texas.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with a $1.2 trillion price tag, had bipartisan support, but both Republican U.S Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz opposed the sweeping legislation. The U.S. House is expected to pass the bill, and Biden is likely to sign the bill once it reaches his desk. Overall, it passed the chamber by a 69-30 vote. All Senate Democrats backed the bill, along with 19 Republicans.

Cornyn praised aspects of the bill throughout the negotiations before ultimately voting against it, breaking with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he is usually in lockstep with. Cornyn cited the bill's costs and the process by which it passed through the Senate as the reasons for his opposition.

"There's no doubt the nation's transportation and digital infrastructure need improvements, and Texas stands to benefit once this bill becomes law," he said in a statement. But, while he "kept an open mind throughout the process" he voted against it.

"It isn't paid for, will add too much to the debt, and was rushed through the Senate in a week's time without adequate debate or input," he said.

Cruz also cited spending for his opposition.

"This is reckless. And it's unprecedented. … This is a trap," he said on the Senate floor Thursday. "Listen, for Democrats it's what they campaigned on. If you're a Democrat, you want to raise taxes and raise spending. You want more debt from China. That's what Democrats do."

The bill catalogued more than 2,700 pages of policies. Texas is set to receive at least $27 billion for roads, more than $500 million to repair bridges, $3 billion for public transportation, $408 million for electric car charging stations and $100 million for broadband internet, according to a White House fact sheet.

The federal bill also includes $73 billion to update the country's electricity infrastructure.

"As the recent Texas power outages demonstrated, our aging electric grid needs urgent modernization," a White House press release touting the bill said.

It remains unclear how much of those funds could be directed to Texas, whose main power grid experienced catastrophic and prolonged outages during a winter storm in February.

A key priority for President Joe Biden's administration, the bill passed its toughest hurdle — the U.S. Senate — thanks to bipartisan negotiations involving the president's team and a group of 20 senators from both parties.

Local Texas leaders closely monitored the progress of the bill from afar.

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, a Republican, said her highest priorities are relieving congestion, increasing broadband access and improving public transportation.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Parker said in a Thursday interview ahead of passage.

The explosion of Texas' population growth underscores the stakes involved with this bill.

"We're the second-fastest-growing city in the country," Parker said. "It's no secret that we have high growth and a need for world-class infrastructure."

Texas mayoral elections aren't partisan. But the support for the bill was bipartisan across the North Texas region, as Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, a Democrat, tweeted his support earlier this week.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that while the bill is expected to cost about $1 trillion, it will add about $256 billion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years. Neither party is immune to deficit-spending proposals: Both Cruz and Cornyn voted for massive tax cuts in 2017 that were projected at the time to add about $1 trillion to the national deficit.

The Senate passage is only the first step in both the legislative process and the yearslong process of pairing the money with actual projects.

Many of the provisions in the bill were written with climate change in mind. For instance, $12 billion will be allocated nationally toward flood mitigation, a key concern for Houstonians still rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey.

Even so, many liberals were disappointed that the bill did not go far enough in dealing with the climate crisis. As such, Democrats are expected to push an additional spending bill that could cost $3.5 trillion and will more directly address the environment and other Democratic policies, including expanding Medicare.

Cornyn told reporters Thursday that if Democrats pursue this track, they will be without Republican support.

"If they do that, they'll have to do that themselves," Cornyn said.

Former President Donald Trump unsuccessfully attempted to pass an infrastructure bill, and this legislation's bipartisan support is a rare moment of legislative consensus after years of Congressional deadlock. Trump opposed this infrastructure bill.

"This is not an infrastructure bill, this is the beginning of the Green New Deal. The bill I proposed, which Mitch McConnell couldn't do anything with, was pure infrastructure. I want what is best for America, not what's best for the Communist Democrat Party," Trump said in a Sunday statement. "This will be a big victory for the Democrats and will be used against Republicans in the upcoming elections. ... Hopefully the House will be much stronger than the Senate."