Henry Cuellar: The Last Politiquero

Introduction

South Texas’s sharp shift in 2020 to the Republican Party surprised many. This region is dominated by working-class Latinos, many of whom are Catholic, forming an overlap of the Texas Democratic Party’s historically strongest demographics. Even in Republican landslides such as Senator John Cornyn’s 2014 rout of David Alameel, South Texas stuck with the Democrats.

But in 2020, it came to a crashing halt, and South Texas shifted decisively from a Democratic stronghold to a swing region accelerating rapidly to the right. More worrisome for Democrats is that while prior Republican strength in southern Texas (notably Bush 2004) was concentrated at the top of the ticket, the current iteration now shows a tangible downballot impact. This has had a seismic change on the region’s politics, and last November, South Texas State Rep. Ryan Guillen switched from the Democrats to the GOP after sensing a shift in the political winds. Legislative and congressional seats thought to be safely Democratic until the end of time are now suddenly in play.

The reasons for the rightward shift are varied and a full explanation is beyond the scope of this article. It suffices to say, however, that the magnitude of the shift represents national ideological battle lines which are finally making their way down to the lowest lines of the ballot. South Texas conservatives have begun to feel alienated from an increasingly liberal Democratic Party both on the national stage and in Texas. In a region where main sources of employment are based on the oil industry and border enforcement, a Democratic Party that wants to curtail both these things will not achieve success, especially with working-class voters who vote with their wallets. The reddening of South Texas has been described as the fall of the final pillar of the Solid South, the term that described the once-ubiquitous conservative Democratic dominance of states like Texas. Considering that political power still rests in the hands of machines and is subject to highly variable turnout schemes, this analogy is not inaccurate.

Thus, we turn to analyze a key political chameleon who has been active in South Texas politics for decades, and who has weathered many winds of change through his storied career: 28th District Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo).

Enrique Roberto Cuellar

Cuellar was born in Laredo in Webb County – and rose to work as a lawyer in the county. Like many residents of Laredo, Cuellar is Mexican-American and Catholic. In the 1980’s, when Cuellar came of political age, Laredo grew into a trade boomtown situated on the Mexico-US border, and with this change was brought desire for a new political order.

For nearly 90 years, Laredo and Webb County was run by a political machine known as the Partido Viejo (the Old Party) – dominated by mostly white Anglos which ruled over a majority-Latino population. Henry Cuellar ran for and won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives, covering most of Laredo — and likely became the first Latino to win the seat.

At the time, the GOP practically did not exist in South Texas — the Democratic primary was the real election (much like in the actual Solid South of yore) and Cuellar had no trouble there. He would win seven more terms in his State House seat without opposition.

The Texas Observer has the following to say about Cuellar’s time in the Legislature:

In the Texas Legislature, Cuellar championed college affordability and the colonias, both big issues in Laredo, but also supported then-governor George W. Bush, who he eventually backed for president, on conservative priorities like school vouchers and tort reform. His willingness to reach across the aisle landed him a position as Texas secretary of state under Rick Perry.

Thus, in 2002, confident that his 16 years of service to his constituents would vault him to higher office, he planned a bid for higher office. His target: the 23rd Congressional District.

The 23rd

The 23rd district of Texas was created in the 1960’s following the passage of the Voting Rights Act and was configured as a seat spanning all of the rural areas in the orbits of San Antonio and Laredo. At the time, it was represented by Democrat Chick Kazen of Laredo, who was an old-school machine politician. Kazen was re-elected easily with token opposition until 1984 when San Antonio-based circuit judge Albert Bustamante successfully primaried him with a 20-point victory, carried by Mexicano ethnic bloc voting.

Bustamante would easily hold the seat until 1992 when ethics issues and redistricting (removing heavily Democratic parts of southern Bexar County to account for the new 28th district and replacing it with the Trans-Pecos and the border region, approximating the shape of the current 23rd) cost him the seat to San Antonio Republican Henry Bonilla. Bonilla represented the growing GOP presence in Texas driven by a new suburbanized conservatism – this would dominate the state with the rise of the Bush governorship.

Bonilla would be easily re-elected again in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000. The then-Democratic legislature drew the 23rd to take out parts of the heavily-red Permian Basin and replaced it with light-blue parts of El Paso County – in an attempt to help a Democrat to unseat Bonilla. It almost worked.

As the map of the precinct results above shows – Cuellar held his ground in the Texas border region and in the rural parts of the seat – but got flattened by Bonilla’s strength in the San Antonio suburbs. Today, the cities north of San Antonio proper are competitive, but 20 years ago they were one of the most Republican parts of the state. Still though, this map demonstrates Cuellar’s strength in Webb County/Laredo; he got over 80% in virtually all precincts there.

Cuellar likely would have run against Bonilla again in 2004, but a wrinkle was thrown into this plan: the Republicans gained unified control of Texas’s state government for the first time since Reconstruction and quickly set about redrawing the congressional map.

The DeLay-Mander

The principal architect of the GOP’s mid-decade redistricting scheme was Texas congressman Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) who was a key ally of President Bush at the time. The scheme had three outlined goals: first, to eliminate as many white Democrats as possible by replacing them with Republicans; second, to change any white Democratic seats that could not be turned red into minority-controlled Democratic seats; and third, to eliminate liberal minority Democrats and replace them with conservative minority Democrats.

The first two have been written about extensively elsewhere – those aims were achieved with great success. The third is what this article concerns – dovetailing with the question of liberal Democrats is the fact that the Texas GOP wanted to protect Bonilla from another close shave. Thus they added more of the heavily white and Republican Hill Country region to his seat, while moving Webb County into the 28th district, represented by liberal Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. Cuellar, already known for his frosty relationship with more mainstream liberal colleagues in the Texas Democratic Party, decided to run against Rodriguez from the right.

The race was a barnburner and saw intense geographic polarization, much like the Bonilla-Cuellar race. In the end, Cuellar ended up winning the primary amid a nasty recount. Rodriguez initially was leading on election night but late-breaking ballots from Webb County narrowly flipped the seat to Cuellar. The subsequent general election was a de-facto coronation, as South Texas was still ultra-Democratic at the time.

In this case, Cuellar played the role that Bonilla did in the ’02 general. His base of Webb County was the largest in the seat, and he got a larger margin out of it than Rodriguez did in Bexar County. Cuellar’s victory here in the primary further compounded the political bad blood between Laredo and San Antonio, between conservatives and liberals duking it out in this hodgepodge of a district.

For the next eight elections, Cuellar was sent back to Congress without incident, as his brand of Tejano conservatism held strong. The political winds changed, though, once the insurgent socialist left rose in the national Democratic Party. The rise of outspoken anti-establishment left-wing rhetoric espoused by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez began to seek primary targets in blue districts for two goals: winning open seats, and kicking out moderate and conservative Democratic incumbents.

Naturally, by representing a solidly blue district while voting far to the right of the median Democratic politician, Cuellar naturally appeared at the top of progressives’ “hit list”. The stage was set for a 2020 clash, with progressives recruiting Laredo attorney Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros aggressively campaigned and tied herself closely to Bernie Sanders, who was very popular with Democratic primary voters in the district in spite of his progressivism.

In the end, Cuellar’s hold on the rural portions of the district powered his victory here by just under 2,700 votes. Interestingly, the geographic polarization is not as strong here – definitely a factor of both Cuellar and Cisneros being Laredo-based candidates. Outside of Webb County, urban-rural polarization is somewhat visible in the San Antonio area (Bexar/Wilson/Atascosa), and near Mission (Hidalgo). Still though, Zapata and Starr voted very strongly for Cuellar and this perhaps presaged the rightward lurch they would take in the November general election.

It is impossible to say with certainty that Cisneros would have lost the general election had she been the nominee, as this dovetails with the manifold reasons for the sharp realignment of conservative Latinos in the region. Cuellar won by just under 20 points, so Cisneros would definitely underperform that margin. Split Ticket’s past wins-above-replacement modeling suggests that a generic Democrat would have still won by 11 points, so while Cisneros’ progressivism certainly would have cost her some votes, the residual ancestral Democratic lean of the seat, plus a lot of “Trump-only” votes cast closer to the Rio Grande, would have led to a notable environment-adjusted overperformance of the 2020 presidential lean .

But one loss did not deter progressives. Following a cycle of redistricting which shifted the 28th northwards to the Cisneros-friendly San Antonio suburbs, Cuellar was in for another round against his rival. Texas Republicans had drawn a map that would weaken the influence of Cuellar-friendly conservative Democrats so as to tip the nomination to a progressive who they felt would be unelectable in a rightward-trending conservative Latino seat. This time, Cuellar leaned heavily into ideology, using the 2020 swing in Laredo and elsewhere in the region as proof that South Texas is not amenable to progressives.

The results showed a very narrow victory where Cuellar won by just under 1,000 votes, with 48.66% of the vote. This is shy of the 50% required to win outright in a contested primary without a runoff — thanks to the presence of third candidate Tannya Benavides on the ballot.

In the map above, Cuellar’s choice to retrench himself in conservative values is embodied by the geographic polarization here. Once again, liberal Democrats in Bexar County faced off against a bloc of conservative Rio Grande Latinos from Laredo and elsewhere downriver. Cisneros’ electoral strength in Laredo evaporated, with almost all of her formerly green precincts from 2020 now turned to varying shades of blue.

Two months later, Cuellar and Cisneros faced off for a third time. The polarization on this is the consummation of moderate-progressive enmity in the 28th, and bitterly resembles the Ciro-Cuellar contest of 2002. Cuellar narrowly bested Cisneros again, due to yet-again increasing margins out of the regions of the district far removed from San Antonio which lean more conservative.

Comparing 2020, the 2022 preliminary, and the 2022 runoff, the regions of Texas voted as follows:

Region20202022 Prelim2022 Runoff
LaredoCuellar+10Cuellar+22Cuellar+38
RuralsCuellar+12Cuellar+36Cuellar+43
San AntonioCisneros+34Cisneros+53Cisneros+74
TX-28Cuellar+3.6Cuellar+2.04Cuellar+0.58

Even though the rural areas of the seat suffered a turnout drop relative to March, Cuellar’s increased margins in Laredo were just enough to offset the ideological polarization in Bexar.

The growing polarization between each region is perhaps reflective of the more rigid partisan-ideological sorting at work in South Texas. In a region where the general population is conservative and primary electorates are overwhelmingly Democratic, much of the primary electorate will balk at progressivism if sufficiently ideologically activated, as is the case in South Texas post-2020.

Looking to the Future

Cuellar now faces Republican Cassy García, Ted Cruz’s former Deputy State Director. García, a native of Edinburg, is by far the strongest Republican that Cuellar will be up against. Riding a storm of roaring Republican enthusiasm, she hopes to achieve the Texas GOP’s long-held dream of turning the final Democratic stronghold in the state red with two other Latina Republicans in the area, Monica de la Cruz (TX-15) and Mayra Flores (TX-34, who as of the writing of this article has already succeeded in her mission to flip a preexisting version of the district in a special election).

The fact that Cuellar is up against such a deluge of Republican resources makes this his toughest race, and justifies Split Ticket’s Tossup rating for the 28th. Were Cisneros to have won the primary, Cuellar’s personal appeal would be nonexistent and a Leans Republican rating would have been justified.

But further beyond that, the 28th is a fascinating case study of how Latinos should not be treated as a monolith by political observers. The staggering geographical polarization that intertwines with ideology and personality is definitely proof that not all Latinos, once ideologically activated, will vote for a progressive given the right messaging. The Latinos of the Rio Grande Valley and of Laredo are true conservatives, whose sharp swings right can best be described as joining the movement of cultural polarization that did their rural white brethren many decades ago. It is, in a sense, the final domino of the Solid South, set to fall in the near future.

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!

You can contact me @politicsmaps on Twitter.

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