The Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Joe Biden on Monday to demand an end to Title 42 border restrictions as well as new protection for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar – who knows a little about politics – was not on the trip.
Mr. Cuellar, a center-right Democrat, represents the 28th district, which stretches from San Antonio to the Mexican border. South Texas has long been a Democratic stronghold, and Mr. Cuellar is the 28th man. As the Democratic Party shifts to the left, he has been true to weapons, God, energy jobs, and border security. His constituents – 76% Hispanic, predominantly blue-collar and socially conservative – have rewarded him with 17 years in Congress.
Yet Mr Biden’s astonishingly poor management of the border and the economy endangers Mr Cuellar and other border representatives. Mr. Cuellar wants a November race on hand – that is, if he reaches that far at all. He must first survive a May 24 on nomination against Jessica Cisneros, a progressive lawyer who supports the repeal of Title 42 and whose victory could cede the district to the GOP. Forget the Democrats’ long-standing goal of making Texas blue. Mr. Biden and his progressive crew make it redder.
The question is whether the president can step out of the bubble long enough to see the world outside. Vulnerable Democrats run from the administration’s plan to end Title 42 pandemic restrictions that make it easier for the government to block migrants at the border. At least nine Senate Democrats have voiced opposition. Centrist Democrats this week slammed Home Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Democratic nationwide candidates from Arizona to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have criticized the administration.
They see polls like this week’s Politico / Morning Consult poll showing that 60% of voters are in favor of extending Title 42 and only 24% think it should end. Pictures of even more border chaos could mean November disaster. Yet the White House remains – as always – in the throes of activists who insist that any border security is “inhuman” and who shoot at Democrats who dare to object – Democrats like Mr. Cuellar, whose district is a microcosm of this dynamic.
Progressives are challenging rulers everywhere, but they are especially passionate about excluding Mr. Cuellar – the only remaining pro-life Democrat in the House and a vocal supporter of border control. Cisneros ran against him two years ago, losing the primary by fewer than 3,000 votes.
She is back with endorsements from the rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Senator Bernie Sanders and with heavyweight support from groups such as the Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement. That support helped her keep Mr. Cuellar just below a majority in the March primary, forcing a resignation. A redesigned 28th district that includes more of liberal San Antonio improves Ms. Cisneros’ prospects for victory next month.
It also creates a risk for the Democrats of a broader defeat. The party is losing its grip on Latin American voters, who are losing patience with inflation, identity politics, crime and open borders. A poll by the Wall Street Journal in March showed that Latin American voters across the country said they would support a Republican in Congress rather than a 9-point Democrat. A Quinnipiac poll in April found Mr Biden’s approval among Latin Americans at a shocking 26% compared to 33% of Americans in general.
The shift is even more profound in the Rio Grande Valley. The 28th District is home to Zapata County, which is nearly 95% Latin or Latin American. Zapata voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a margin of 33 points. Four years later, Donald Trump outscored Mr. Biden by 5 points. In nearby Starr County, Mrs. Clinton won by 58 points. Mr. Biden won by 5. He won the district by only 4.
The Democrats insist that any candidate with a D after her will hold the seat. Republicans (who have listed the 28th and two other border districts as top targets this year) are betting on that arrogance and rooting for Ms. Cisneros in May. They are more than eager to strengthen her record of hostility to the police, border security and energy jobs. They point to polls that show South Americans in South Texas are more likely to support than oppose GOP positions on the border and the economy. They have made an unprecedented effort to mobilize new voters. And they are working on getting a dynamic nominee. The current front-runner is Cassy Garcia, a former member of Senator Ted Cruz’s staff.
A Cuellar primary victory would make the GOP path more difficult; the incumbent won its election in 2020 by almost 19 points. But even he says bluntly that his party’s frontier approach is to slip vulnerable members. His party, he told CBS News, plays into the Republican “narrative” – that “Democrats are for open borders” – and the images of a large number of illegal border crossings resonate in his district. He said he asked the White House, “Why are we only aware of immigration activists living thousands of miles away from the border?” Why ignore people living in border communities?
That’s a good question – and by November, one that the Democrats might have wished they had faced earlier.
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Published in print on April 29, 2022.