As Democrats nationally gird themselves for a tough year, progressives are looking to Texas’ first-in-the-nation primaries on March 1, and two Texas candidates in particular, to test their midterm muscle.
Both Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar are supported by Justice Democrats—an organizing group known for backing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful bid to oust incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018.
“Progressive ideas have always proven to be extremely popular across the country,” Justice Democrats candidate communications manager Usamah Andrabi told The Daily Beast, citing positions like Medicare for All and access to reproductive health services. “The first primary will be a testing ground for some of that.”
It’s the second time Justice Democrats has backed Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney who came within 3.6 points of unseating longtime Texas incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar in the 2020 Democratic primary.
Now, with name recognition and campaign experience in hand, Cisneros is running against Cuellar again with hopes that her district has warmed up to her progressive chops.
“Cuellar had been running on this myth that South Texas is conservative and he’s the only kind of Democrat that’s able to win. Again, we kind of showed how weak, you know, that actual myth is,” Cisneros told The Daily Beast, referencing her sizable portion of the vote last primary election.
And not unlike 2020, some of Cuellar’s own congressional colleagues are backing his opponent this cycle. Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have already endorsed her. Groups including Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Emily’s List, and Sunrise Movement, among others, are lining up behind Cisneros as well.
Cuellar is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and the only House Democrat to vote against codifying abortion rights into law last September. In 2019, he was given an A by the National Rifle Association.
Their race is the latest illustration of the moderate versus progressive wings of the party facing off, an occurrence that has happened with increasing frequency around the country over the past few election cycles. In 2020, longtime New York Rep. Elliot Engel fell to Bowman. That same cycle in Illinois, Rep. Dan Lipinski, who like Cuellar opposed abortion rights, lost his primary to Rep. Marie Newman.
“Jessica’s race especially provides a microcosm for the progressive movement writ large and kind of what we’re up against when we’re talking about right-wing corporate Democrats,” Andrabi said.
Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project, said it’s unclear whether there’s a broad, new-age appetite for progressive candidates in Texas. If Cisneros wins, he said it’s because Cuellar is out of line with the broader Democratic Party.
“If [Cuellar] goes down, it’s not because, you know, her progressive vision necessarily won out, it’s because his position on issues on what it means to be a Democrat are high out of step,” Blank said.
But, a new cluster of districts in Austin could also open up the possibility for more successful progressive runs, Blank said. Casar, an Austin City Council member, is running in an open seat left vacant after its longtime congressman, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, opted to run in a newly created district next door.
“When you consolidate some of these districts into some urban areas, especially places like Austin that’s highly educated and very white, it certainly does raise the probability that you’re going to get a more progressive candidate,” Blank said.
Democrats for years have tried flipping Texas blue, investing time and cash galore. Those efforts have come to limited statewide avail, as Republicans have a stronghold on both Senate seats and the governor’s mansion. Texas ultimately went to Donald Trump by 5.6 points in 2020 (versus 9 points in 2016).
But Casar says those breakthroughs are happening at the local level, including in Austin. “Where people are at politically in Texas is shifting, and then the electeds start catching up,” he told The Daily Beast.
Casar has received endorsements from Reps. Bowman, Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY). The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC also issued an endorsement of Casar, with Co-Chair Mark Pocan (D-WI), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) saying in a joint statement they “look forward to helping him win on March 1.”
(The CPC PAC does not endorse candidates running primary challenges against incumbents, like Cisneros.)
Casar faces three other Democrats in his race. While he’s not the only one running in the district who calls themselves a progressive, he’s widely regarded as the most progressive of the bunch.
In the days and weeks following Texas’ first-in-the-nation primary night, scores of progressives nationwide will make similar attempts as Casar and Cisneros to win a ticket to Congress. Some candidates more viable than others, of course, and all with more time to persuade voters than the Texas group.
The seriousness of going first is not lost on Cisneros, who said with early voting starting on Feb 14, she’ll be spending the next few weeks ensuring folks “understand what’s at stake.”
“We need to do a good job because we are setting the tone for the rest of the election cycle,” she said.