WASHINGTON — The high-profile rematch between progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros and Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is headed to a runoff after neither candidate cleared the necessary threshold to avoid one in Tuesday’s Texas Democratic primary, NBC News projects.
Texas law requires candidates to win more than 50 percent in a primary to secure their party’s nomination. But a little-known third candidate in the race won just enough of the vote to keep both major candidates short of 50 percent in the neck-and-neck contest, forcing them into a May 24 runoff election.
The ideologically charged contest pitted Cisneros, a 28-year-old lawyer backed by national progressives, against Cuellar, a 66-year-old moderate who has served 18 years in Congress and faced controversy after a recent FBI raid on his home and campaign office.
Cisneros came within 2,700 votes of defeating Cuellar in 2020 and returned this year with higher name recognition and more established support from national progressive leaders and groups.
Labor unions and liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, which rarely go up against incumbent lawmakers, decided to throw their weight against Cuellar, hoping to oust one of the few remaining anti-abortion rights Democrats in Congress.
Both wings of the Democratic Party have been closely watching the primary in Texas' 28th Congressional District for clues about the state of their party.
Cuellar has broken with Democrats on numerous occasions but said he has done so to represent his district, a sprawling and politically divided South Texas band of mostly rural land that runs from San Antonio all the way down to the Mexican border.
Cisneros allies like the progressive Working Families Party billed the race as a “David and Goliath battle,” with the oil and gas industry and “anti-worker” corporate interests lining up behind an incumbent they labeled “Trump’s favorite Democrat.”
“Would love a clear victory, but running against an entrenched incumbent makes this almost impossible," tweeted Ilyse Hogue, the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America who has been a major Cisneros booster. "The runoff is the victory. Time to double down,”
Moderate Democrats, however, dismissed the idea that the outcome was any kind of bellwether. They suggested Cuellar's main problem was the FBI raid, which is unique to him and nonideological.
The FBI in January raided the incumbent’s home and campaign office as part of an investigation into U.S. businessmen’s ties to Azerbaijan. It’s not clear if Cuellar is even a target of the investigation and he has denied any wrongdoing, but the investigation nonetheless created doubt around the longtime lawmaker.
“The moderate New Democrat Coalition has 97 House members; 'the squad' has six. If they continue to add two to four per cycle, 'the squad' might match the New Dems' numbers in 45 years,” said Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
No matter what happens in the runoff, however, progressives will not be leaving Texas empty-handed.
Greg Casar, a member of the Austin City Council who ran for Congress with the backing of groups like Justice Democrats, won his primary contest in Texas' 35th District, according to a projection by NBC News.
And Jasmine Crockett, the most liberal member of the Texas state House, is well positioned to win her party's nomination for a Houston-based seat. A crowded field prevented Crockett from crossing the 50 percent threshold, but she was miles ahead of the candidates in the race.
CORRECTION (March 2, 2022, 8:51 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Third Way’s executive vice president for public affairs. He is Matt Bennett, not Bennet.