This Longtime Dem Lawmaker Opposes Abortion Rights. Will Primary Voters Support Him? : The NPR Politics Podcast Rep. Henry Cuellar is a conservative Democrat who has represented the 28th Congressional District in south Texas since 2005. Backed by Democratic congressional leaders, he's fighting to keep his seat against a primary challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros who says the congressman's immigration and social policies are out of step with what Democratic voters believe.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, and voting reporter Ashley Lopez.

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This Longtime Dem Lawmaker Opposes Abortion Rights. Will Primary Voters Support Him?

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TONY: This is Tony (ph) from San Diego. And today I am going to complete crossing the Sonoran Desert from Tucson to Yuma, Ariz., without ever touching a road on the famous El Camino del Diablo Trail.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Wow.

TONY: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

1:09 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, May 11.

TONY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will probably be reaching civilization, and my phone will explode from the amount of email and text messages from being out of contact for the last week.

KHALID: Wow.

TONY: Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: You know, it's a little wild. I'm not sure how long I could last without my phone and without contact with my phone.

KURTZLEBEN: Our listeners, man, like, the fact that they have the presence of mind to do timestamps when they're out doing interesting, adventurous things. I wouldn't think of that. Congratulations.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Yeah. It could not be me, either - turning off my email or walking through a desert. I won't be doing it.

KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LOPEZ: And I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics and voting.

KHALID: OK. And, Ashley, we should give you a proper welcome before we actually jump into today's show. I'm sure long-time listeners of the pod have heard some of your reporting in the past. You have done some really solid stories from NPR's member station KUT in Austin. But now you are officially part of our NPR POLITICS squad. So welcome, welcome.

LOPEZ: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

KHALID: And you are still based in Texas?

LOPEZ: Yeah. Yeah. Not moving, so a little different, just a little different.

KHALID: I'm so glad.

LOPEZ: I'm still going to be here.

KHALID: And, Danielle, you recently got back from a trip to Texas. Is that right?

KURTZLEBEN: I sure did, yeah. I went all over South Texas, which, as it turns out, Texas is a big place. I did a lot of driving.

KHALID: So both of you have been doing some reporting on this high-profile Democratic primary race between Congressman Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros, who's an immigration lawyer who is trying to oust the current congressman. And, Danielle, I want to start with you, if you could just tell us a little bit about this race. I know you spoke to both of these candidates. And I will say, you know, it feels like national Democrats that I speak with are really nervous about just hanging on to the seats that they already have in order to maintain control of the House. And so I was struck by the fact that here you have a Democratic challenger, you know, in this current political climate.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So a few things about this race. One is that, yeah, it is along the border. This district is Texas's 28th District. It stretches down from San Antonio all the way down to Laredo and other towns and cities along the border. So there's a broad range of types of people. It is urban. It's suburban. It's rural. And it's also a district where Trump improved in 2020 over 2016. Now, that is not a super-common occurrence, and that happened in a few border districts out there. So that makes these districts along sort of down in the tip of Texas really interesting to watch and to take stock of.

And that brings us to Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros. Henry Cuellar is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. He voted a couple of times to fund the border wall that Donald Trump was - wanted to construct. He voted against the PRO Act, which would have made unionization easier. And he is opposed to abortion rights. Now, Jessica Cisneros is a progressive young woman. She's an immigration attorney. She is 28. And yes, she is, in fact, endorsed by AOC, by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, a whole bunch of progressives. So, yeah, it is a very firmly a progressive-versus-centrist Democrat race, and we've seen a few of those over the years.

KHALID: You know, one of the things about this race that stands out to me is that Cuellar is one of the most staunchly anti-abortion Democrats in the House of Representatives. I mean, he may be really kind of the last man standing, to be honest, within the Democratic Party, at least on the House side. And he's sort of an anomaly within his party. But my understanding is that he's not such an anomaly in south Texas. Is that right, Ashley?

LOPEZ: Right. I mean, there have been lawmakers that are, for all intents and purposes, Democrats, but on this one issue, abortion, they tend to vote like - with Republicans and like Republicans. So this is not unheard of. This is a pretty socially conservative part of the state, especially south Texas is very Catholic and conservative on issues like even including gay rights in some cases. So it's not unheard of. Although, you know, this is becoming a smaller share of Democratic legislatures. I mean, even thinking about - we have a state senator here who's retiring, who was one of the last anti-abortion rights legislators who were - who was also a Democrat. So even within Texas, that's becoming like a smaller crew.

KHALID: You know, as much as we've been talking about abortion, though, the midterms are about a lot more than that single issue. And Cuellar is a known figure. I mean, he's a nine-term congressman. So voters in this district presumably have known his opinion on abortion. It is no secret. And one thing I am curious to hear you guys' thoughts on is that the district itself is heavily Latino, right? It touches the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans at the national level have been eager to make these midterms about immigration and problems at the border.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, the border is a huge issue down here. I mean, when you talk to Republican voters in this district, even among them, the border is much more animating than even it is among Republicans in other parts of the country. But yeah, the border has become a major part of this Democratic race as well. In fact, it is something that Henry Cuellar really tries to talk about. In fact, Texas Public Radio's Sofia Sanchez found when she tried to interview him last week after a after a rally, as she asked him, hey, Jessica Cisneros is attacking you on your abortion stance, how do you feel about that? And he pivoted.

HENRY CUELLAR: There's a lot of issues out there, and she needs to spend some time - how she's going to defend the border.

KURTZLEBEN: So that's a quick clip. But the point here is that he was asked about abortion there, and he moved to this other issue.

KHALID: He didn't talk about it, it looks like. Like, he didn't know how to the question.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. This is a safer issue for him, at least he feels that it is.

LOPEZ: Yeah. And I think that's interesting because, like, you, I think you talk to him right before that leaked opinion. I think before the leaked opinion, this makes a lot of sense because, I mean, a lot of polling shows out of Texas, I mean, for at least since Joe Biden has been in office, that the economy and immigration are way more motivating, way more top of mind to Texas voters. But we have this, like, hypothetical situation where we could have the end of Roe, you know, this summer. So, you know, it'll be really interesting to see, like, if not talking about it and acting like abortion isn't a thing that people are least going to care about in the future is going to be a good strategy because I mean, I can't imagine any Democrat moving forward won't be talking about this nonstop.

LOPEZ: All right. Let's take a quick break. And we will have lots more to discuss in just a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KHALID: And we're back. And, you know, so far in this episode, we've been talking all about the Democratic primary. But this district, the Texas 28th, is considered one of the most competitive in the entire country. So, Danielle, do we know who's on the Republican side of the ticket yet?

KURTZLEBEN: We don't. There is a runoff on that side of the ticket as well, and it is between two women. One is Sandra Whitten. She is a woman who ran against Henry Cuellar last time and lost. And the other one is Cassy Garcia. She was, among other things, a staffer for Senator Ted Cruz. And she has his stamp of approval. And she will be running against Whitten. And one of them will be taking on Cuellar or Cisneros. So we've still got four people in this race.

KHALID: So, Danielle, one of the names you mentioned there is a Latina woman. And one of the things I've been really curious about are the inroads that Republicans have been trying to make among Latino voters. And, you know, at the risk of sounding like we are over generalizing here, it does sound like, Ashley, what you were describing to us a bit ago was that Texas Latinos near the border are perhaps more conservative. I'm curious how you've been seeing some of this play out with Republicans trying to appeal to folks there.

LOPEZ: Yeah. So like anywhere else, Latinos are obviously not a monolith. But when you break down how they vote in more rural parts of the state, which I would say this district runs kind of, you know, both urban and rural, but it's obviously more rural than a lot of districts you'll see around Houston, Dallas and Austin. Latino voters in this - in Cuellar's district are much more socially conservative. And so this is a place where Republicans are able to just make more inroads, and especially since at least the Trump years, like, these culture wars have been really helpful, it seems, for them, because this is where they get to pick up some of those voters that otherwise would have probably voted with Democrats on issues like the economy. So - and we saw that in the 2020 election. President Trump outperformed with Latino voters in south Texas and also in Florida. That was, you know, these were the exact groups that people were flagging when they said, you know, Republicans are doing a better job with these voters.

KHALID: You know, we've talked a lot in this episode about abortion and the way that that particular issue could galvanize voters. And one of the things that I've been struck by is that Henry Cuellar's views on abortion may be out of sync with the National Democratic Party, but yet he has the support of leading national Democrats like, say, Nancy Pelosi. And I guess that just makes me wonder, like, what is the role of someone like Congressman Cuellar, who is opposed to abortion within his party?

KURTZLEBEN: Henry Cuellar is the only House Democrat who voted against the Women's Health Protection Act last year. That is the act that would, to put it succinctly, would codify the abortion rights protections that that were in the Roe v. Wade decision. So I talked to Democrats for Life of America, which is a Democratic group that opposes abortion rights, as the name might suggest. And it depends on who you ask what you see the role of Henry Cuellar is in the party, right? Because if you ask Democrats who oppose abortion rights, they say, look, first of all, they're very happy that he opposes abortion rights. But also, they would argue he is electable and his abortion stance is part of what makes him electable. And as Ashley was saying, you could potentially make that case in this district, especially if you have a lot of people who on religious grounds oppose abortion, as Henry Cuellar generally does.

And furthermore, Democrats who oppose abortion rights would say, look, even if you're in favor of abortion rights, Henry Cuellar is going to vote for your other priorities, so you should want him in. And, you know, people like Pelosi and Clyburn are backing their incumbent, who does often vote with their party. But if you talk to someone like Jessica Cisneros or other progressive Democrats, they're going to say he is just going to slow down the Democratic agenda. Actually, here she was making the case for that on "Meet The Press" on NBC recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JESSICA CISNEROS: There's so many key issues where he's always standing with Republicans. And he could become the Joe Manchin of the House. We don't want Henry Cuellar to be the deciding vote on the future of our fundamental freedoms and rights in this country. We just can't risk that.

LOPEZ: I mean, the role of Cuellar is to hold on to that seat, I mean, I think that's what party leaders are seeing them as. You know, the trade-off is, how important is that seat in a broader scheme of things when you are really angering your base voters who aren't there in that district for the most part? So it's, you know, again, big tent problems. But I think the role of people who are in these districts, I mean, you know, South Texas doesn't even look like most of the Texas that, you know, I report in, which are like the more urban parts of the state. So, you know, it's going to be interesting to see what that trade-off leads to in terms of, you know, pushback from some voters or not.

KHALID: I mean, it does feel like Democrats nationally aren't really certain about how this draft decision from the Supreme Court that was leaked actually could affect their party's voting behavior, right? And it feels like in this race, you've got two Democrats with differing views on the issue who will face off at the end of the month. And it could really be the first test case of what it might mean for Democrats.

LOPEZ: Absolutely no one would be able to tell you how this is all going to play out because, to begin with, this is all hypothetical. Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, even in Texas, where we just had a primary in March. And turnout for Democrats was not great. Republicans really outdid them. And there was already on the books a pretty severe restriction on abortion. But again, this is, you know, the end of Roe could be, if it actually happens, a whole other ballgame.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LOPEZ: And I'm Ashley Lopez. I cover politics and voting.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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