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A Runoff Between Texas Democrats Becomes a Battle Over Abortion Rights

4 minute read

Once she was his intern; now she’s his opponent. But that’s not the only thing that makes the battle between Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar in south Texas among the most intriguing of May 24’s Democratic primaries.

When Cisneros first challenged Cueller in 2020, she was a 26-year old immigration lawyer, and the race was heralded as a contest between progressive and moderate, young and old. The progressive movement positioned Cisneros in the vein of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, citing the race as evidence of its potential to win outside liberal areas.

But the longtime incumbent dispatched Cisneros, winning by about 4 points. Cisneros challenged Cueller again this year, and came up just short in their March 1 primary, a margin tight enough to trigger a runoff. Now, after the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that appears to signal the end of Roe v. Wade, the race has become a bellwether for how much Democratic voters care about abortion.

Cueller is the last anti-abortion Democrat in the House, and Cisneros has campaigned heavily on abortion rights. A victory, her allies say, would demonstrate the power of reproductive rights as an electoral issue.

“It’s one thing to anticipate the striking down of your fundamental freedoms. It’s another thing to see it in real time,” says Cisneros. “He could be a deciding vote on the future of reproductive freedom in this country.” (Cuellar did not respond to a request for comment.)

Read More: Trump’s South Texas Gains Vex Democrats.

Progressive groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have formed an unlikely alliance with more mainstream abortion-rights organizations like EMILY’s List and NARAL in support of Cisneros, illustrating the race’s relevance to the national battle over reproductive rights.

“We have a common interest here: to elect a pro-choice candidate and unseat the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” says Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which recruits and supports progressive challengers to moderate Democrats.

In interviews with Cisneros and her allies, that goal was emphasized above other progressive policy goals, like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage.

“There’s never been a more important time to make sure that we have people in Congress who will do what they can do to protect these rights as we look at the Supreme Court very likely overturning them altogether,” says Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for EMILY’s List.

The primary also showcases the generational and ideological fault lines in the party. Cuellar, who has been in Congress for nearly two decades, is supported by House Democratic leadership, pro-Israel groups, and and major industries, including oil and gas. Cisneros, who had never run for office before challenging Cuellar in 2020, has collected endorsements from progressive stars like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

Read More: Inside AOC’s Unlikely Rise.

Cuellar allies say the liberal endorsements and national attention might backfire in a place like Texas. “You have a candidate who seems guided and influenced and recruited to run by interests from New York and California,” says Richard Peña Raymond, a Democrat who represents Laredo in the Texas House of Representatives. “We’re not Queens. And Queens is not Laredo. But we’re Democrats and we’re proud Democrats.”

Other Texas politicos say they are skeptical that abortion will be as much of an issue as many expect. “I think there’s been an over emphasis on that,” says Matt Angle, a Texas Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated in the race. “There’s a resistance to choice being made a defining issue.”

Observers in Texas also note that the national focus and ideological spin may end up hurting Cisneros with voters in the district. “There’s a natural resistance for people in Texas to the race being nationalized,” Angle adds. “People resent the East Coast, West Coast and Washington people who don’t know Texas from Toledo coming in and saying they’re gonna turn things blue.”

Cisneros’s allies have also highlighted a January FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and office. (Cuellar’s lawyer has said he’s “not a target” in the investigation.) And the challenger believes the wind is at her back.

“We were a very underdog campaign, and we still are,” says Cisneros. “But we’ve been scaffolding on the progress we’ve been making every single round.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com