‘Corruption’ or ‘socialism’: GOP targets South Texas either way

National Republicans are vowing to pull out all the stops to defeat what they see as a weakened opponent anyway, forcing Democrats to spend big to defend territory they have never feared heading into a general election. And the headwinds could be in favor of the GOP, with national polls indicating a GOP takeover in the House and the party making astonishing inroads with Latino voters in recent years under former President Donald Trump.

“It’s definitely going to be competitive if she’s the candidate,” Rep. Filemón Vela (D-Texas) said of Cisneros. “And then, frankly, I mean, because of the investigation, it will be competitive for him as well.”

Vela — who backed Cuellar and is retiring after five terms representing another district in the Rio Grande Valley — issued a stern warning to Democrats: “National party systems have ignored South Texas since the last election. And I think we’re in grave danger of losing at least two out of three seats in South Texas.

Democrats insist they still hold the advantage of Cuellar’s seat, which actually turned slightly bluer in the redistricting: President Joe Biden would have won it by 7 points. But some party members are also painfully aware of their party’s struggles with Latino voters in the past two elections — particularly when the GOP makes immigration and border security central campaign issues. Hillary Clinton carried the old version of the district by nearly 30 points in 2016, but four years later Biden has gained just 4.4 points there.

“We are going to overthrow this neighborhood. It’s winnable,” said Cassy Garcia, the GOP candidate who finished first in Tuesday’s primary. A former staffer of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Garcia will face her own runoff against Sandra Whitten, the GOP nominee against Cuellar in 2020.

If Garcia wins, she said she would make border security one of her top issues. In an interview, Garcia touted her endorsement of the border patrol union, the National Border Patrol Council — which endorsed her on Cuellar this year.

She said she would be happy to take on either Democrat in November, criticizing Cuellar’s loyalty to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and disparaging Cisneros as an ‘open borders’ advocate linked to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.).

“She’s endorsed by the AOC, which wants to abolish DHS and support open borders,” Garcia said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. “She is anti-oil and gas. Energy means jobs in our district.

Building on their gains in 2020, Republicans see more Latino districts as possible turnarounds in 2022, especially in Texas. Their party, with the help of Trump, continues to hammer Biden and the Democrats on the border, which they see as the path to victory here.

As of Wednesday night, Cuellar led Cisneros by 807 votes in a tight Democratic primary tally, 48.5% to 46.8%, with Cisneros excelling in northern counties near San Antonio and Cuellar racking up margins farther south around Laredo. Neither has crossed the 50% threshold to avoid the second round, which is set for May 24.

Cuellar and Cisneros would bring their own responsibilities to a general election in Texas’ 28th District, which includes Cuellar’s home base of Laredo and stretches north toward San Antonio.

For Cuellar, there was no clarity on the mysterious FBI raid on his home in January, although he said he committed no wrongdoing. It’s a significant burden for a 17-year-old congressman, one of the most conservative in the caucus, who hasn’t risen to the challenge of a serious general election against a Republican since 2002.

Cisneros, who has been embraced by National Progressives, has previously taken potentially damaging stances on border and immigration issues, such as her 2019 proposal to “split ICE in two” as she pushed to focus more on drug and human trafficking.

She also took a pro-abortion rights stance in a heavily Catholic district, which Democrats in the district say could be militarized by Republicans in November.

“If in fact she were to take it – just by looking at the possibility again – she has a challenge. We are a conservative community. I suspect the right to choose will become a huge, huge problem,” said Sylvia Bruni, chairwoman of the Webb County Democratic Party, which does not endorse primary races.

She pointed to the heavily distorted ads that pro-Trump coalitions ran during the 2020 election.

“‘If you vote for Biden, they kill babies at 9 months,'” Bruni said, summarizing the attacks. And on the Democrats’ push on climate change, she said Republicans have generalized party positions as follows: “‘You’re going to be homeless, you’re not going to have food on the table. “”

Cisneros strongly pushed back against the idea that she couldn’t beat a Republican in the general election, arguing that her party’s lackluster performance in South Texas was less due to voters abandoning Democratic ideas than to the fact that the party was becoming too complacent with its base: “For a very long time, we were taken for granted,” she said.

Cuellar, and whatever investigation sparked the raid on his home and office, are the real danger to the party, Cisneros added.

“He is unable to raise funds. He’s under this cloud of mystery,” Cisneros said in an interview outside his campaign headquarters just before primary day. “What’s going on? He’s a congressman, why is this happening?”

Speaking to POLITICO by phone last month, Cuellar said Cisneros would struggle to defeat a Republican in a general election, lambasting what he called “more socialist-type views.”

“I heard some people say they probably wouldn’t support her as a Democrat,” Cuellar said.

Republicans also plan to contest a nearby Rio Grande Valley seat that Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez left to run in the new version of Vela District. That seat is now the most competitive in the state, and Republicans nominated Latina businesswoman Monica De La Cruz. On the Democratic side, lawyer and Army veteran Ruben Ramirez and business owner Michelle Vallejo will participate in a runoff.

The Vela district, meanwhile, turned into one that Biden would have carried by 16 points.

National Republicans were most excited about Garcia’s candidacy off the crowded field vying to face Cuellar. She also had more than $100,000 in the bank as of mid-February.

“Cassy is a really strong candidate,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who endorsed her. “I hired her to work for Senator Cruz, when I was chief of staff – we all worked together. She is much loved, highly respected in the valley. She knows Border Patrol very well.

South Texas Democrats also know Garcia from working for Cruz. Vela said he had “a good personal relationship” with her even though he disagreed with some of her policies.

“She’s going to be a damn good candidate for Republicans in this district,” Vela said.


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