Balancing the Scales

How much did AIPAC affect a close Democratic primary in Texas?

Isaac Scher
June 1, 2022

Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros speaks to the media before a rally in San Antonio, February 12th, 2022.

Eric Gay/AP

On May 24th, a runoff primary election for a Democratic House seat was held in Texas’s 28th Congressional District, which stretches from the San Antonio metro area down to the US-Mexico border, including the city of Laredo. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a 66-year-old nine-term incumbent and a staunch centrist, faced off against the progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, a 29-year-old human rights attorney who once interned for Cuellar’s office. The runoff was triggered after an initial primary vote on March 1st with no clear winner and a margin of 767 votes. The result of last week’s runoff is similarly slim: At the time of this writing, Cuellar is leading Cisneros by just 175 votes, and no winner has been declared.

The Cuellar-Cisneros faceoff gives the impression of an old guard warding off an increasingly potent new threat. Cuellar’s leads against Cisneros have steadily diminished since their first bout in 2020, which he won by 2,690 votes. Cisneros, for her part, has enjoyed support from the young, leftward flank of the Democratic Party affiliated with the progressive “Squad” in Congress, whose platform she broadly supports. Recent events, particularly the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that is expected to overturn abortion rights, helped boost her campaign. Cuellar has drawn from the significant stock of political capital available to members of the Democratic establishment, and Israel lobby groups like AIPAC played a particularly critical role in Cuellar’s effort to thwart a progressive challenger.

Daniel Marans, a senior reporter at HuffPost, has closely covered the Cuellar-Cisneros primary election, among many others, and his reporting on the influence of political action committees (PACs) like AIPAC’s has illuminated a dynamic regularly overlooked by the mainstream press. Last year, he spoke with Jewish Currents about the lessons for progressives after the Israel lobby helped defeat the Bernie Sanders-aligned primary candidate Nina Turner in Ohio. On Friday, I interviewed Marans on the state of the race, convulsions within Democratic politics, and the threat that AIPAC sees in Cisneros. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. It originally appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter (subscribe here).

Isaac Scher: Three weeks before the runoff election, Politico obtained a draft of a forthcoming Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Cuellar, of course, is the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House. And then, before the polls closed, someone gunned down 19 children and two teachers with an assault rifle in Texas, where Cuellar is the recipient of thousands of dollars from the NRA. What’s the significance of his defeating a progressive challenger in that context?

Daniel Marans: The shooting happened much too late to impact the election. I just don’t think that that was on voters’ minds as they were heading to the polls, regardless of their views. But I do think that the leaked abortion opinion probably helped Cisneros, at the very least in terms of raising money and visibility. In the final weeks, she had a high-salience issue with which to make headlines. She demanded that House Democratic leaders withdraw their support for Cuellar, and while they did not acquiesce to that, it was free earned media for her. Cuellar himself admitted to The Washington Post that abortion did not play to his strong suit. We even saw a super PAC supporting him—the Mainstream Democrats PAC, which is backed by the LinkedIn co-founder, Reid Hoffman—trying to assure voters that Cuellar does not support abortion bans. In fact, he appears to support them with exceptions for rape, incest, and danger to the mother, and he prefers a more incremental path to the one likely to be enabled by the Supreme Court. So if you’re a low-information voter who finds the Supreme Court decision frightening, it might have put the race on your radar. And since this was a runoff primary, anything that could potentially increase turnout was helpful to Cisneros.

But that said, of all Democratic-leaning districts in the country, Texas-28 might be the one where being pro-choice and being pro-gun control are least politically advantageous. They probably helped Cisneros most in the San Antonio area, which leans more liberal than Laredo and the other border communities. Every time she’s run, from 2020 to the initial round of the primary in March of this year, she has improved on her margin in the San Antonio area and he has improved on his margin in Laredo.

The predominantly Latino, largely blue-collar communities along the border are historically Democratic, but have always been more socially conservative. They are deeply Catholic, even if they’re not fully on board with Republicans regarding abortion. They tend to be gun owners and to have the cultural signifiers of rural white voters—wearing cowboy hats and boots, driving pickup trucks. They tend to be skeptical of liberal narratives that they are victims rather than working people who may want some help from the government. They are frightened by more radical versions of that, and they are certainly friendly to the oil and gas industry, given their reliance on it for blue-collar jobs.

And they are hawkish on immigration and supportive of law enforcement. Some of them have personally emigrated from Mexico, but more commonly their parents or grandparents did, especially among those who are eligible to vote—and there’s fear, weariness, and resentment of undocumented immigration that would make the average liberal in Houston or San Antonio, to say nothing of New York or Los Angeles, recoil in disgust. The phrases “illegals” or “illegal aliens” are extremely common when you have conversations with Latino voters in border communities like Laredo. There are a number of different reasons they cite. One is the disruption to everyday life of seeing people literally cross the border in the middle of the night. Another is that people tell themselves a story about how their ancestors did things the right way, whereas the new people are seen as a less desirable element associated with violence and drug cartels.

To the extent that Cisneros gets even a third of the vote in Laredo, that speaks less to the appeal of her progressive positions than simply the desire for political change in a community that is deeply unequal and impoverished and struggling with an entrenched political class, of which Cuellar is a key part.

IS: Why have Israel lobby groups like AIPAC’s new super PAC waded into the race? What benefit do they see?

DM: AIPAC has decided that any Democrat that is likely to be a member of the ultra-progressive Squad is a threat to Israel’s agenda, even if said Democrat has little to no record on Israel. So they are raising and spending millions of dollars in ways that follow in the footsteps of Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), only on a larger scale. They have so far not spent any analogous amount in Republican primaries, and it’s too early to see how they act in general election races. Notwithstanding a handful of libertarian-leaning Republicans who oppose US aid to Israel in the context of opposing all foreign aid, like Rep. Thomas Massie, AIPAC’s real focus is on left-leaning Democrats who are already a thorn in their side or who they believe could be. They are determined to halt, if not roll back, the gains that this faction has made since 2018.

Some of their efforts have come up short, like the money that was bundled to try to unseat Ilhan Omar in 2020. I don’t think that the previous attempt to unseat Rashida Tlaib was either serious or a priority for the Israel lobby, but they’re trying it again this year, in part because there’s an opportunity for them to collaborate with Black Democrats who want a Black Democrat in that seat after redistricting. Keep in mind, Tlaib succeeded John Conyers, and there are people that are still smarting from the idea of Detroit no longer being represented by a Black member of Congress.

IS: What you’re saying, essentially, is that because the staunchest critics of Israel come from the leftmost flank of the Democratic Party, these lobby groups are targeting progressives writ large. Is this guilt by association?

DM: That’s one way to put it. Another is that they’re erring on the side of caution. If you think, for example, that Rep. Andy Levin’s Two-State Solution Act, which has over 40 cosponsors in the House, is an existential threat to Israel, then you want to make sure not a single additional Democrat who would sign it is elected. To be clear, that bill, which has no chance of getting a hearing, let alone a floor vote, is not one of the more extreme ones. Levin is a progressive Zionist J Street guy who has never said anything inflammatory. But the bill would restrict how US aid to Israel can be used, which would put teeth behind the pro forma criticism that Democratic administrations have made of the occupation. Anything that isn’t a financial and diplomatic blank check from the US strikes fear in the hearts of AIPAC and their allies in other organizations. They deeply believe that Israel’s democratically elected governments are the only proper arbiters for how Israel should manage its own security concerns, so they would prefer to give lip service to the idea of a two-state solution than to have any meaningful pressure from the US.

The second piece of this is more emotional. Since 2018, there’s been an increase in rhetoric that treats Palestinian rights as a social justice cause on par with anti-apartheid and anti-racism in the US. That rhetoric, along with actual changes in public opinion, cause legitimate discomfort to the Israel lobby, which partly inspires their zeal to prevent anybody ideologically aligned with it from being elected to Congress.

IS: Jewish Currents has been discussing the Israel lobby’s perhaps decisive influence on a whole slate of Democratic primary races. But is that analysis from left-leaning thinkers and commentators a bit too simplistic?

DM: It depends. There’s no question that it has made a difference in a handful of key races. The races where the Israel lobby, and specifically AIPAC’s super PAC, has spent money this cycle include Ohio-11, where they ensured that Shontel Brown stayed in office against Nina Turner’s challenge; Pennsylvania-12, where they failed to help Steve Irwin defeat Summer Lee; North Carolina-1, where they helped Don Davis defeat Erica Smith, and North Carolina-4, where they helped Valerie Foushee defeat Nida Allam. There was a mismatch in outside spending in those two North Carolina House districts. In Pennsylvania-12, outside groups were able to offset it such that it was about a two-to-one advantage, which I think made a real difference.

But there’s no question that when you’re spending as much as $2 million on a single House race—especially somewhere like Pittsburgh or Laredo, which are not major media markets, as opposed to New York or Los Angeles—that money makes a huge impact.

In Texas-28, you have a primary challenger, Cisneros, who had already come quite close to the nomination, and Cuellar, who had been weakened not just by the leaked Roe opinion, but by an FBI raid associated with a criminal probe, the nature of which is still not totally understood. He was really in trouble, and I think the Israel lobby wanted to take a chance on balancing the scales in favor of a staunch ally—I say “balance the scales” because based on the information I have, Cisneros spent more than Cuellar in the runoff. AIPAC came in in the final few weeks and spent over $1.8 million, together with Mainstream Democrats, which is run by people affiliated with DMFI but does not have an explicit pro-Israel goal. That’s probably just a marriage of convenience, where Reid Hoffman is looking for a turnkey centrist operation where he can put his money. Since he shares the same electoral goals as the Israel lobby, he can borrow their infrastructure. I don’t know anything about his views on Israel, but suffice to say he’s not sufficiently moved by the Palestinian cause to change his overall inclination to support somebody like Cuellar.

IS: Justice Democrats, a PAC backing Cisneros, made Cuellar’s apparent corruption a focus of its attack ads. How did voters react to it?

DM: I spoke to voters in Laredo on Tuesday, as I did in late February, early March, and back in 2020. These are not typical progressive voters—they’re not young or explicitly left-leaning, and among those who supported Cisneros, the number one word in English or Spanish I’d hear is “change.” There’s a sense that Cuellar is part of what has been known on the Texas-Mexico border as the Patrón System, a system of strongman politics kept in place through patronage. Cuellar’s close ties to local elected officials embody that. His brother is the Webb County sheriff. His sister was the county tax assessor. He was briefly the Texas secretary of state and has close relationships with state Republicans. He raises a lot of money both from local and national business interests, which he has used to climb the ranks inside the House Democratic Caucus, to the point where he has a seat on the House Appropriations Committee. In a region that has struggled economically, one of his main selling points to voters is the federal money he has brought in—for instance, for Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

But there are voters who find that they are still struggling, as the south side of Laredo continues to stagnate and decline while the north side, where Cuellar and many of his donors live, looks increasingly opulent. This system of patronage and traditional insider politicking is simply not working for them. They may not agree with Cisneros on abortion or guns or immigration enforcement, but they’re more interested in rolling the dice on something new. I think the FBI raid is simply another data point toward the overall impression that Cuellar has been in office too long and is out of touch. For voters in San Antonio, who are less familiar with him, it was very significant and had a negative impact.

Conversely, I heard from many conservative Democrats and Obama-to-Trump voters that they believe that this was a plot by the Biden Justice Department to punish Cuellar for breaking with Biden in various ways, including by criticizing the administration for not closing the border adequately. Obviously, I have no evidence to back that up. Certainly the House Democratic leadership has been squarely behind Cuellar—Pelosi made robocalls, Jim Clyburn headlined a rally for him in San Antonio. But Biden did not endorse him as he endorsed Shontel Brown and Kurt Schrader. What’s unclear to me is whether or not an endorsement from Biden would have been helpful to Cuellar.

IS: As of right now, Cuellar is ahead by just 175 votes. What do you think this suggests about the state of Democratic politics, whether in Texas or nationwide?

DM: I think it does have some national implications, though it’s important not to overstate it. We don’t yet know the final outcome, and Cisneros may yet win, though I think that’s unlikely. But she’s come closer than ever before, and that speaks to the hunger for change among Democratic primary voters, even in a district like Texas-28, and to the dissatisfaction with Democrats who are seen as being conservative obstructionists to Biden’s agenda.

In terms of the Israel lobby, it’s another example among many of how they can influence a race in order to overcome the advantages that some progressive candidates have. In some races, they are the decisive factor in handing an outcome to a more moderate candidate, but the cash advantage they provided this time wasn’t so overwhelming, so it’s not clear this is one of them.

Isaac Scher is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents and a reporter whose work has appeared in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and The Intercept, among other publications.