WASHINGTON — Texas Democratic House candidate Jessica Cisneros is demanding her party's congressional leaders drop their support of her primary opponent, Rep. Henry Cuellar, over his opposition to abortion.
Her attack on Cuellar comes as a blockbuster leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that signaled that Roe v. Wade would be overturned is galvanizing Democrats to defend abortion rights and could shake up the midterm elections this year.
"As the Supreme Court prepares to overturn Roe v. Wade, I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar who is the last anti-choice Democrat in the House," Cisneros said in a statement Wednesday morning.
Cisneros, 28, added that "with the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights and we cannot afford to take that risk."
Asked about her request of her party leaders, Cisneros said, "The reality is I would be a better working partner for Democratic leadership to be able to deliver on these Democratic priorities and proposals that Democrats ran on in the last election cycle."
Cisneros' was scheduled to appear with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., at a campaign rally in San Antonio on Wednesday night. Her statement noted that Cuellar has been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.
A runoff election in the close race will be held May 24 after neither candidate won a majority of the vote in the primary March 2.
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it's smart of Cisneros to target Cuellar's anti-abortion stance, saying the leak of the draft opinion is "manna from heaven" for her and a "plague" for Cuellar.
Cisneros' pro-abortion rights views should help her in the coming runoff, Jones said, especially in the northern part of the district in metro San Antonio. But while Latino Democratic primary voters lean pro-abortion rights, Cisneros' abortion views could make retaining the seat more difficult in any general election contest, Jones said.
"In reality, Cuellar’s tepid pro-life position better matches the position of the average Hispanic Texas-28 voter than does Cisneros’ robust abortion rights stance, but Cisneros' position on abortion is closer to that of the average Texas 28 Democratic primary voter than is that of Cuellar," said Jones, referring to the 28th Congressional District.
Cisneros has been endorsed by several abortion rights advocacy groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and EMILY's List, as well as the progressives Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Cisneros has criticized Cuellar, a moderate, for being the only Democrat to vote against a bill dubbed the Women's Health Protection Act, which would have codified the abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade into federal law.
Cuellar, meanwhile, has defended his longtime opposition to abortion, saying in a statement Tuesday that he has "always been pro-life" as a lifelong Catholic but that there "must be exceptions in the case of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother."
"Let me be clear about the leaked opinion of the potential SCOTUS ruling, it is not based on precedent and is not incremental in nature," Cuellar said in a statement posted on his campaign’s Twitter account Tuesday. "It will further divide the country during these already divisive times but let us wait until the final ruling."
Cuellar, 66, has served in Congress since 2005, representing a predominantly Hispanic region that covers the areas of San Antonio and as far south as the U.S.-Mexico border.
Shortly before the San Antonio rally, Cuellar pushed back against the notion that Democrats should be held to a particular view on abortion.
"Sometimes we might have differences on religion, for religious belief, but I tell you, that’s one issue," he said.
Polls have found that views among Hispanics on abortion have paralleled those of the general population nationally, with just under 60 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 40 percent saying it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. An NBC News poll shortly after Texas passed a law outlawing nearly all abortions in the state found that a higher proportion of Latinos favored abortion rights, with 63 percent saying the procedure should be legal and 35 percent saying it should not.
Jason Casellas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, said Cisneros' attack on Cuellar might be effective in most Democratic primaries, but he said Democrats in South Texas "are not as liberal on this issue as Democrats elsewhere."
There's no indication that Clyburn, Pelosi and other top Democrats will abandon Cuellar over his abortion position, especially because his stance is more in line with that of the district as a whole, with its large Hispanic community, Casellas said.
"Due to his incumbency and moderate record in a fairly conservative district, Cuellar is the more electable candidate in November, and Pelosi and her team know that," he said.
Clyburn appeared to confirm that stance Wednesday, saying Cuellar "gives us a much better chance of winning their seat than anybody else."