In Final Weeks of Heated Texas Congressional Primary, Unions and Progressive Groups Throw $350,000 Behind Jessica Cisneros

Originally published in The Intercept on February 17, 2020.

A COALITION OF progressive groups and labor unions announced on Monday they’ll be spending at least $350,000 in support of Texas congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, ratcheting up the momentum in the final two weeks ahead of her high-stakes primary against Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

The groups behind the independent campaign effort are the Working Families Party, the Communication Workers of America, the Service Employees International Union, and the Texas Organizing Project. All have previously endorsed Cisneros, a human rights lawyer and 26-year-old first-time candidate for the House of Representatives. The money will be going toward funding canvassers in Laredo, phone banking, direct mail, and digital and radio ads that will be running in both English and Spanish, according to the groups, whose plans have not previously been reported.

“Since we endorsed Jessica we’ve been spreading the word to our members and volunteers over Texas who have been sending text messages to folks in their community,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party. “Now we’re stepping it up with a pretty robust and intense campaign effort in support of her. Jessica’s race is a top priority for us because of what she stands for and because we think this is the right fight to have.”

The outside spending comes after Cuellar, who has represented Texas’s 28th Congressional District since 2005, has received nearly a million dollars in support from conservative groups. Last week the Brownsville Herald reported that the U.S Chamber of Commerce launched a six-figure TV ad buy for Cuellar. The big business lobby, which is shelling out $200,000 on the ads, hasn’t spent so much on a Democrat since 2014. The Chamber is joining a dark-money group, American Workers for Progress, which has reportedly spent over $700,000 to tout Cuellar’s record on health care. The American Banking Association, a lobby group for the financial industry, jumped in the race last week too, spending $60,000 on pro-Cuellar radio ads.

Cuellar’s campaign has also ramped up its own efforts, running its first negative ad against Cisneros last week, attacking her for supporting abortion, taking money from outside the district, and claiming her opposition to the oil and gas industry will cost residents of the district jobs.

Though Cisneros is severely outgunned by Cuellar, who had $2.9 million in cash-on-hand at the end of 2019, she has demonstrated remarkable fundraising prowess. In the fourth quarter of 2019, she raised more than $513,000, exceeding Cuellar’s Q4 haul of $431,000.

In her bid to unseat the 15-year incumbent, Cisneros landed early endorsements in the fall from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Working Families Party, EMILY’s List, and the Communications Workers of America District 6. By December, she had earned the added backing of J Street, MoveOn, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood. In late January, she got the endorsement of the Texas AFL-CIO, a major coup as big labor groups rarely buck the party establishment in favor of insurgent candidates. Three days later, she was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, followed quickly by Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal. SEIU announced its endorsement of Cisneros on Friday, as did former Housing and Urban Development secretary and presidential candidate Julián Castro.

With the backing of both the labor movement and high-profile liberal politicians and organizations, progressives are hopeful they can unseat an anti-choice Democrat who has taken significant campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and big business, and has voted for funding a border wall in his own southern Texas district. Most recently, Cuellar voted against the PRO Act, a major labor reform bill with bipartisan support, because, among other things, he didn’t like that it would overturn right-to-work laws.

IN ADDITION TO the planned spending blitz, other progressive allies of Cisneros have been ramping up their support for the home stretch. NARAL dispatched a full-time organizer to Laredo last week who will work with the Cisneros campaign through the remainder of the election. And a week before the primary, according to NARAL spokesperson Kristin Ford, the organization’s president Ilyse Hogue will be traveling to the 28th District, where she will hold public events and knock on doors for Cisneros.

EMILY’s List has also been working to train and support Cisneros’s campaign staff, and spokesperson Benjamin Ray said their supporters have been “very excited” to help unseat the last two anti-choice Democrats in the House: Cuellar and Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois. Texas Forward, a super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, has spent at least $1.2 million on advertising to support Cisneros. One ad compared the two candidates, and argued there’s a “damn big difference” between the Democrats.

J Street, which doesn’t typically wade into Democratic primaries, has already bundled over $30,000 for Cisneros’s campaign. “We’re going to keep pushing our top donors in these last few weeks so I expect that number to rise,” said Ilya Braverman, J Street’s national political director. “Unlike other groups that do independent expenditures, we focus on direct contributions the campaign can spend directly on staff and pizza and things like that.”

Other statewide unions in Texas are also focusing on Cisneros’s primary.

Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, told The Intercept that their federation has been communicating with its members about their Cisneros endorsement and why it is so important. “We have been very active in pointing out contrasts with Cuellar and we’ve had demonstrations in Laredo and San Antonio to highlight his opposition to the PRO Act,” he said. His federation doesn’t have a federal PAC so they’re not giving direct financial contributions, but Levy said union members from all over the state are going door-to-door to canvass. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had real contested primaries, and we as a labor movement are trying to be really strategic about what our goals and interests are,” he said. The Texas AFL-CIO is focused primarily on flipping the Texas House, and while they’ve endorsed in other congressional races, Cisneros is also the only candidate they’ve endorsed for Congress who is taking on an incumbent Democrat.

“Jessica just exemplifies the kind of person we need more in Congress,” said Shane Larson, the senior director of government affairs and policy for Communications Workers of America. “It’s one thing for our union to want to see Henry Cuellar replaced because he votes with corporations and Wall Street time and time again, but Jessica is really such a phenomenal person and phenomenal candidate, and she represents the kind of people who just do not have representation in Congress today.”


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