Breaking Down the Cisneros vs Cuellar Runoff in Texas’ 28th district

On March 1, Texas kicked off the 2022 election cycle with a bang by holding its first-in-the-nation primaries. But in a blockbuster schedule that included hotly-contested statewide races, perhaps no election gathered as much attention as the major ideological showdown between Jessica Cisneros and Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary for Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which is now headed to a runoff. Texas election rules prevent a candidate from winning a primary without reaching a majority vote share, and as neither Cuellar nor Cisneros reached this figure, a head-to-head matchup will be held between the two for their party’s nomination on May 24th.

To properly understand this district, it is worth revisiting the past few sets of election results here to track its rapid trend away from the Democratic Party. Although Barack Obama won the new version of this seat by a massive 21.4 point margin in 2012, Joe Biden only won it by 7 in 2020, in keeping with the large Hispanic swing right seen in both south Texas and the nation as a whole.

However, it remained friendlier to Democrats on the downballot level through the course of the decade. With a candidate uniquely attuned to the contours of South Texas politics like Henry Cuellar, the previous version of this district (which was slightly more conservative, at Obama +21 and Biden +4.3) was not even seriously contested by the GOP at the House level over the course of the last decade. In fact, Republicans lost the 2012 and 2016 House elections in the old 28th district by over 35 points, and they did not even bother fielding a candidate in 2014 and 2018.

This leftward downballot lean of this seat began to show signs of changing in 2020, however, as the national Hispanic swing right began hitting Democrats on all levels of the ballot. Cuellar only won his previous race by 19, and although he outran fundamentals by nearly 9 points in his 19 point victory (as compared to Joe Biden’s relatively narrow 4-point win), it was still the closest race that the solidly Democratic district had ever seen under the 2012 lines.

There is reason to think that the seat may continue to become closer in 2022. Results in other South Texas elections, such as the McAllen mayoral race, suggest that the Hispanic swing rightwards was not a one-off. A candidate like Cuellar, who has consistently outrun the top of the ticket in all his elections, would historically have withstood such trends; however, the acceleration of educational polarization and the revelation of a recent FBI investigation into his dealings with Azerbaijan could do some serious damage to his electability. However, this does not appear to have hurt him deeply in the first round of the primary itself, with the incumbent Congressman coming just a few hundred votes short of winning an outright majority, and therefore, an uncontested nomination.

In terms of the district itself, TX-28 follows a similar shape to its previous iteration as used from 2012 to 2020. Stretching from the Mexican border city of Laredo up to San Antonio and its suburbs, this district once leaned decisively towards the Democrats, but with the aforementioned massive Latino redshift, this district is now in a far more competitive position than it had been in previous cycles. 

As seen in the above map, the primary on the Democratic side in this district saw heavy geographic polarization. Cisneros did best in Bexar and Guadalupe Counties, two suburban counties far removed from the unique political culture of rural Hispanic South Texas. Meanwhile, in Laredo and in the rural parts of the district, Cuellar racked up enough votes from culturally conservative Democrats to offset his landslide-level loss in the north. Zapata and Starr Counties gave him over 70% of their votes, seemingly correlated with the massive pro-Trump swings seen in the region two years prior.

In fact, despite the FBI investigation, Cuellar actually achieved significantly higher margins in border counties like Starr (a 15 point improvement from 2020), Zapata (a 5 point improvement), and Webb (a 12 point improvement). Part of this likely comes down to ideological realignment; Cuellar is significantly more conservative than Cisneros, and these areas swung hard for Donald Trump in 2020, unlike Cisneros’ main base in Bexar and Guadalupe counties. This swing is primarily attributable to rural conservative Latino Democrats who broke with their party’s candidate in historic numbers.

Moreover, Tanya Benavides, who got 4.7% of the vote in March, will not be present on the runoff ballot. While she is aligned with the left wing of the Democratic Party, there is reason to actually believe her presence on the ballot may have hurt Cuellar, especially considering that he needed fewer than 700 of the 2,324 votes cast for Benavides to have secured 50% and avoided a runoff. Benavides got a significantly higher than average share of the vote in many counties where her name was listed first of the three on the ballot, such as Guadalupe (8.8%), Duval (10.0%), and Jim Hogg (6.6%) – Starr (3.6%) was the lone exception among counties that cast more than 10 votes in the Democratic Primary. This would align with ballot-order effects that have been studied extensively by academics, and there is significant reason to believe that Benavides’ absence from the ballot may not overtly benefit Cisneros, as there is no guarantee that her voters turn out again and even less of a guarantee that they would actually break for her nearly as heavily as ideological alignment might suggest.

Ultimately, this runoff is likely to break down in a very similar fashion to the first round. Cuellar can be expected to be propelled by his southern base, while Cisneros is likely to clobber her opponent with landslide margins in the San Antonio area. However, because this race is so polarizing, in ideology, in geography, and even in symbolism, the outcome of the election can generally be expected to be dependent on base turnout. Each candidate will seek to drive up turnout in their own base so as to gain relative to their opponent, even if turnout happens to be lower overall in a runoff. 

In a case like this, Cisneros’ reliance on younger voters may hurt her, as this age group typically has lower relative turnout, especially in off-cycle elections, let alone a primary runoff. Given the combination of relative turnout, Cuellar’s March results, and the incumbent’s unique strength in this district, we rate this runoff as Leans Cuellar. A Cisneros victory is certainly very possible and should not be dismissed, especially if the attack ads against Cuellar that mention his scandal begin to land among voters. However, given that they did not prevent Cuellar from beating out Cisneros in March despite being in a district more favorable to progressives than its previous iteration, the onus is on Cisneros to defy the signs observed up until this point.

Whether Cuellar holds off Cisneros and hangs on to one of the last remaining congressional districts willing and able to elect a conservative-to-moderate Democrat, it’s clear with the loss of many of his Blue Dog colleagues that the party line has become tighter. Perhaps two of Cuellar’s most prominent deviations from party orthodoxy are his stances on abortion and labor rights, being the only Democrat to vote against H.R. 3755, which would have codified abortion rights into federal law, and the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) act, which would have strengthened labor unions significantly.

Meanwhile, in the same neck-of-the-woods, Texas State Representative Ryan Guillen, another conservative South Texas Hispanic, flipped to the Republican Party after 18 years as a Democrat, a sign of the coming shifts in one of the final vestiges of what can be understood as the Hispanic Solid South. Whether Democrats hold out in the 28th or not, the long-term writing is likely on the wall for them in a seat like this, and it is more likely than not that Republicans will flip this seat at some point during this decade. In our view, while a long-term conservative Democratic incumbent with proven ticket-splitting appeal like Cuellar would be favored in a general election, Cisneros would begin as a definite underdog, especially as President Biden weathers unfavorable approval ratings.

In an increasingly nationalized political culture, there seems to be less room for regional appeal, making electoral prospects grim for both conservative Democrats who are often rejected at the primary stage, and progressive Democrats who fail to attract the same cultural appeal to their predecessors in a changing South Texas. For now, Democrats will have to hope that there is enough left in the tank for them to hang on to the district for this cycle, especially in what is shaping up to be a somewhat unfavorable year for them.

I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.

I make election maps! If you’re reading a Split Ticket article, then odds are you’ve seen one of them. I’m an engineering student at UCLA and electoral politics are a great way for me to exercise creativity away from schoolwork. I also run and love the outdoors!

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