Progressives focus on three key Texas primaries this week
Jessica Cisneros, candidate for Congress | official website

SAN ANTONIO—Progressives are focusing on three key Democratic congressional races in Texas, plus the already pending fall clash for governor, even as the state’s new GOP-passed voter repression law curbs turnout in the March 1 primary.

Beto O’Rourke at Willing Workers Baptist Church. FB page.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has a wide lead in the Texas Democratic gubernatorial primary. He’s also virtually tied in the fall race against far-right GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, a devoted Trumpite, according to what may be a “push poll” for the pro-Democratic turnout PAC. It shows Abbott with 43% support to 42% for O’Rourke. The poll included a money pitch.

But a non-partisan poll by the University of Texas, for the Austin American-Statesman, gave Abbott a 10-percentage-point lead—and a 2-to-1 margin among independents.

Abbott actually faces enough competition to possibly force him into a May 24 runoff—as could the top two finishers in any other contested race. The same UT poll gave Abbott 60% of the GOP vote, with 15% each to his two closest competitors.

A runoff may also occur in the high-profile race in the South Texas 28th District, which stretches from San Antonio to Laredo. There, pro-worker immigrant rights attorney Jessica Cisneros is trying again to knock off incumbent Democrat Henry Cuellar. She came within 2,700 votes of doing so in the 2020 primary, drawing 48.2% of the vote.

A third candidate, teacher and community organizer Tannya Benavides, could draw enough votes to force the other two into a runoff.

Cisneros has gotten high-profile national endorsements. They include the Progressive Change Campaign Committee—a critic of the Democratic establishment—Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her Justice Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez headlined a mid-February fundraiser for Cisneros and other progressive candidates.

“We are offering an alternative vision for South Texas, one that recognizes that health care is a human right and not a privilege,” Cisneros says in a speech videotaped for campaign ads. “A lot of issues we’ve been facing such as a really high poverty rate, a really high uninsured rate, that hasn’t changed over the last decade or more.

“People are saying ‘I keep voting Democrat. Things aren’t changing for me. The status quo isn’t changing for me.’ I was born and raised here and these are the people I want to help, that our concerns aren’t being addressed by the current representative, that Henry Cuellar isn’t representing everyday south Texans.”

Cisneros supports Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Protect The Right To Organize Act. She makes the point Cuellar has voted against the PRO Act, labor’s top legislative priority, twice on the House floor. And the second time, last year, he was its only Democratic foe.

And up close, as an immigrant rights attorney, she’s seen the devastation U.S. policy has wracked on families she represents. She supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people and criticized Cuellar for voting to extend the amount of time immigrant children could be detained.

She also backs the For The People Act, the comprehensive elections and voting reform bill the Democratic-run House passed on party lines—minus Cuellar—last year. And Cisneros refuses corporate campaign cash. Cuellar’s campaign has garnered more money than hers, helped by such corporate largesse and contributions from the infamous right-wing Republican Koch brothers.

Cuellar, arguably the House’s most conservative Democrat, and often called “Donald Trump’s favorite Democrat,” also opposes Medicare For All and voted for the Hyde Amendment to ban Medicaid funding for most abortions.

Positions like that led Sanders to tweet: “We need Jessica Cisneros in the Congress to fight for decent-paying jobs and an economy that works for all of us.”

The state AFL-CIO backs Cisneros, too, as it did in 2020. And this time, bigwig Dems are staying out of the Cisneros-Cuellar race. In 2020, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., actively campaigned for Cuellar. Hoyer’s given an endorsement this time but hasn’t campaigned.

There are also Democratic contests in two other key seats. The new 15th congressional district considered the only swing seat in Texas under the GOP-run legislature’s gerrymandered new map, has attracted six Democrats to the primary.

The most prominent is self-funding businessman John Villareal Rigney. Others include lawyer Ruben Ramirez, who sought the seat—which had different boundaries–twice before, and Michelle Vallejo, a small business owner recruited by LUPE Votes, a local progressive organizing group. The Texas Tribune reports “she’s the candidate running furthest to the left.”

The third House contest, in a new seat which is just under 60% in Austin, the state capital and a progressive bastion, and 40% in San Antonio, pits former Austin City Council member Greg Casar against state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin. When he isn’t serving in the part-time legislature, Rodriquez is vice president for business development at Capstone Title, his website says.

He’s also the establishment candidate, as a former Travis County (Austin) Democratic chairman and a 19-year state House member.

“Casar is a local lightning rod, synonymous with some of the most progressive policies in Austin, including a push to reduce the city police budget” by $150 million “and a measure—later overturned by voters—that allowed homeless people to camp in tents throughout the city,” the Texas Tribune reported.

Ocasio-Cortez came to Austin to back him, too. And Casar’s police funding cut led Abbott, the right-wing GOP governor, to push legislation through banning cities, counties, and towns from cutting cop cash without state approval. Abbott’s also targeting Casar in a campaign ad.

There are two other wild cards. One is redistricting. The other is voter repression. The U.S. Justice

Department is challenging both in federal court as violating the Voting Rights Act. And redistricting stretches the Austin-based district all the way to San Antonio.

It also threw two Black U.S. Representatives into one district, leading one to retire. And while all of Texas’s population growth, which gave it two new House seats, was from Hispanic-named people, the overwhelmingly white Republican legislative caucus gave that community no new seats.

The repressive measures include bans on drive-by voting and 24-hour voting, and give partisan “poll watchers”—who are noted for intimidating voters of color—more leeway while restricting non-partisan election workers from restraining them. Early voting weeks were cut back, Sunday early voting was eliminated and early voting is now restricted to people 65 or older, or who have disabilities, or who will be out of the state or in the last stages of pregnancy.

And ID requirements for voting by mail are strict: Your Texas driver’s license number, or the last four digits of your Social Security number and your name on your application must match the name on the voter rolls. That’s led to high rejection rates, of 25%-50%, depending on the county involved, in absentee ballot/vote-by-mail requests. The 50% figure is from El Paso, a Democratic bastion.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.