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Cleaning House

House Democrats Are Backing Abortion Foe Henry Cuellar at the Worst Possible Moment

The party needs to decide what it cares about more: its Beltway friends or reproductive rights.

Bill Clark/Getty Images
Representative Henry Cuellar in 2017

With the Supreme Court apparently set to overturn Roe v. Wade in the next several weeks, the right to an abortion will almost certainly be the biggest issue for Democratic voters in this fall’s midterm elections. Democrats will ask their voters to go out and vote harder than they ever have before. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney tweeted, “We’re angry and hurt, I know. But it’s not about filibuster, size of the court or what the Senate hasn’t passed. It’s about Republicans, not us. We can save our freedoms. But, it’s November, stupid.” But if it’s about November, stupid, then why is the party lining up to save the career of the House’s only anti-choice Democrat, Texas Representative Henry Cuellar? Because that also seems pretty stupid in light of recent events.

Cuellar is in the midst of a tough primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a human rights attorney who has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The two faced off on March 1, with Cuellar prevailing by one and a half points. But the narrow margin of victory triggered a runoff that will take place on May 24. Two years ago, Cisneros lost to Cuellar by three points. Now a January FBI raid of Cuellar’s home and campaign office, as part of an ongoing foreign corruption investigation, along with the bombshell leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision, have combined to cast the Texas congressman in a harsh light; his electoral fortunes are in serious jeopardy.

Nevertheless, House Democratic leadership is absolutely going to the mattresses for Cuellar. Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly affirmed that she’s standing behind him. “I support my incumbents,” Pelosi said at a press conference in Austin, shortly after Cuellar’s office was raided by the FBI. “I support every one of them, from right to left. That is what I do.” The emphasis in the House speaker’s sentence should land on the word “right”: Cuellar is perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the chamber.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, meanwhile, has also backed Cuellar. Jim Clyburn, another powerful leader in the House Democratic Caucus, has been particularly aggressive in his backing of his embattled colleague. “When people tell you you need to agree on everything, I do not agree with Henry Cuellar on everything,” the majority whip said at a campaign event last Wednesday. “We need to sit down with people who we do not agree with and try to find common ground, to do what is necessary to move this country forward.”

“We have a big-tent party, and if we’re gonna be a big-tent party, we got to be a big-tent party,” Clyburn told reporters after the rally. “I don’t believe we ought to have a litmus test in the Democratic Party. I think we have to bring as many people into the party as we possibly can. This whole notion that you’ve got to agree with everybody on everything is pretty sophomoric to me.”

Clyburn’s answer is both condescending and revealing. Ever since Politico reported that the Supreme Court was on the verge of overturning Roe, Democrats have responded with a single message: If you want to protect abortion access, you must vote for Democrats who will vote to codify the right to an abortion by law and add to their current ranks so that such a measure might pass both houses of Congress and survive a GOP filibuster along the way. That urgent project doesn’t square with lining up to save the bacon of the Democratic Party’s sole anti-choice member. This isn’t so much a mixed message as it is a puréed one. As Liza Featherstone wrote in Jacobin, House leadership’s decision to back Cuellar “suggests that it doesn’t understand the urgency of the abortion fight—nor any of the other pressing issues of our time, for that matter.”

Cuellar’s out-of-step position on abortion isn’t his only problem. The FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign office reportedly focused on the congressman’s business deals in Azerbaijan, involving Azeri kleptocrats and “a range of Texas-based companies linked directly to his wife, Imelda Cuellar.” The congressman’s lawyers have insisted that Cuellar is not the focus of the investigation and that he has been fully cooperative. Nevertheless, that raid could haunt him should he secure the nomination. It’s not as if the Democratic Party doesn’t have very recent experience with FBI inquiries disrupting political campaigns!

Additionally, Cuellar opposed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and has been labeled “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.” Being a big-tent party is one thing—being an anti-union, pro-oil, anti-abortion Democrat who’s increasingly out of step with the party’s priorities and may be connected to illicit goings-on with Eastern European oligarchs is another matter entirely. Besides, Democrats have a choice: They can back Jessica Cisneros, who is plainly an improvement on the status quo and who is close enough to a victory that just having the backing of party elites should wrap this election up with a bow.

If winning the battle for reproductive freedom, labor rights, and good governance is Democrats’ priority, then the party should recognize that Cuellar is a drag on accomplishing these goals. Moreover, Clyburn is wrong about litmus tests: The party has adopted one in the last week and a half, telling voters again and again that the upcoming elections are about abortion rights and that the only way to save them is to turn out and vote Democrat. It makes no sense to tell voters, “You need to vote in a pro–abortion rights majority,” and then add, “You also need to vote in someone to counteract the vote of this one anti-abortion guy we want to keep around for some reason.” By backing Cuellar, these same leaders are showing that they’re not fully committed to that fight.