LAREDO, Texas — Even before early voting opened in Texas, Julieta Ramos knew she'd vote again for Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary — never mind a recent FBI raid on his home and campaign office.
“For me, he is the best congressman that we’ve had in a long time, and I hope he wins the elections,” Ramos, 78, of Laredo, said in Spanish last week. “Right now, he’s got a tiny problem of bad politics, but it’s only a question of clearing it up. He is honest.”
Cuellar, 66, squeaked out a 52 percent to 48 percent win over Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old human rights attorney backed by prominent progressives, in the 2020 Democratic primary. A centrist Democrat, Cuellar hoped to return this year with a stronger and revamped campaign and win by a much bigger margin. But an FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign office last month as part of an investigation into ties of U.S. businessmen to Azerbaijan may complicate his prospects.
In a video released last month, Cuellar denied any wrongdoing and said the FBI's investigation would clear him. Cuellar has done few interviews or made few public appearances since the raid, and his campaign manager declined an interview with NBC News for this story.
Still, the raid has spooked some voters against Cuellar and thrown Democrats into a quandary. Texas' 28th District, where Cuellar serves, leans blue. But it isn’t the sure bet for Democrats in the general election that it once was.
Trump captured 41 percent to 47 percent of Latino votes in Texas' border region in 2020. That's created worry that Cisneros is too far left to win over enough moderate Democrats and independent voters to keep the seat blue in November.
That leaves Democratic voters to decide whether to opt for Cuellar and hope the investigation doesn't harm him further in November or take a chance that Cisneros can turn out more, and younger, voters and hold off the GOP. Democrats hold the House majority by the narrowest of margins, and Republicans are bullish on their chances of seizing control of the chamber as President Joe Biden's approval ratings drop.
Cisneros disputed concerns about her electability in an interview with NBC News, saying, “I think I’m more electable than Henry Cuellar, I’d probably be the best chance in terms of Democrats and keeping this district safely blue."
"District 28 is more safely Democrat, but it is not necessarily more liberal," said Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project, a Texas Democratic political action committee.
A third Democrat, Tanya Benavides, is also in the race and could force a runoff. The GOP has a seven-way primary in the district.
Early voting in Texas' primary, scheduled for March 1, began Monday.
A test of loyalty and the district’s values
The 2022 twist in the rematch is testing the loyalty of Cuellar supporters as well as the moderate positions that he espouses. Cuellar, who was first elected in 2004, is a Blue Dog Democrat who opposes abortion rights, supports gun rights and boasts of his work with Republicans. He is Texas’ only Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has received endorsements from House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political arm. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., backed him over Cisneros in the 2020 contest, though she has not weighed in this time.
The day after the raid, Cuellar underscored his conservative tilt by accepting an award via video conference for his votes against abortion rights.
Hank Sames, 69, president of Sames Auto Group, which owns car dealerships in South Texas, said he doesn’t believe the allegations of wrongdoing against Cuellar and said he fears what may happen to Laredo if it loses the power that Cuellar holds.
“I’m a Republican, but Henry is a great help for Laredo,” Sames said after leaving a grocery store.
The Cook Political Report, which analyzes state, federal and presidential elections, has rated the district as "Lean Democrat" amid the changing political landscape and FBI investigation.
"If Cuellar survives, he may not be as strong as he has been in past elections. If Cisneros wins, she may be too far left for the general election," said Dave Wasserman, a senior editor for the site and an NBC News contributor.
On top of that, Biden's approval rating is down and Republicans have stepped up their Latino voter outreach. Data released this week shows that Latino voters are drifting more toward the Republican Party.
A changing district
The outline of District 28 looks like a boxy bird in profile with a plume jutting out from its head. It stretches from the easternmost boundary of Starr County in the Rio Grande Valley, picks up Webb County, home to Laredo, to the west, heads up to southeastern San Antonio and pushes into south-central Texas.
While the border area of the district may be more conservative, many of the new voters in the San Antonio area lean progressive, political analysts said.
Cuellar has represented much of the district as a U.S. congressman and in the state legislature before that.
Cuellar openly complains that national Democrats don’t understand his district, in particular its Hispanic political diversity.
"I’ve been delivering results year after year while my opponent is backed by the defund the police movement and has pledged to slash the border patrol budget, making our communities less safe and costing our area thousands of jobs," he said in Feb. 8 tweet. "The stakes are high. Early Voting begins Monday."
Cisneros has not pledged to defund the police or Border Patrol.
The AOC factor
Chris Soto, 42, is among some 40,000 new San Antonio area voters that the state legislature shifted into the 28th District through redistricting. Last week he stood outside the rally with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for the chance to see her and Cisneros.
He said he’d known about her challenge of Cuellar in the last election and was happy that he now lives in the 28th District so he can vote for Cisneros in the primary.
“Cuellar has been there for too long. He’s gotten too comfortable” said Soto, a home health care worker. “She’s like us. She knows our problems, our issues.”
The investigation has galvanized Cisneros and her supporters. The raid supports her portrayal of Cuellar as beholden to special interests, she said.
A San Antonio rally with Ocasio-Cortez drew some 1,200 people who filled a live music venue, while about 50 Trump supporters and counterprotesters jeered from across the street. One held a sign that said, "NO TO JESSICA CISNEROS IS NO TO AOC".
The same group that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez, Justice Democrats, recruited Cisneros in 2020.
Ocasio-Cortez aimed multiple attacks at Cuellar at the rally.
“How dare you?” she said, criticizing Cuellar’s opposition and votes against abortion rights. She told the crowd he is partly to blame for the failure of Biden's social safety net bill, Build Back Better, which would have continued child tax credits.
Ocasio-Cortez dismissed talk that Cisneros might be too left for the district. “The funny thing about turnout is when you fight for people, they fight for you, she said.
Cisneros uses stories from her childhood as a daughter of Mexican immigrants to explain her policies to voters. For instance, she explains her "Medicare for All" support by telling voters about selling “steak plates” to raise money to pay for her aunt’s cancer treatment.
She represents immigrants in detention pro bono, she told the rally crowd, contrasting her work to Cuellar's acceptance of political contributions from companies involved in immigration enforcement.
She told NBC News she can also work with Republicans “if it is in favor of the values of the district.”
Cisneros criticized Cuellar's votes against an abortion rights bill the House passed last September and against the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would change labor organizing laws. The labor bill was heavily supported by unions and opposed by businesses.
“Henry Cuellar loves to play up that he is bipartisan, but something like the Pro Act that is key labor legislation, that is truly bipartisan, he doesn’t support it,” Cisneros said.