Left Challengers Running for Congress Snap Their Losing Streak
In Texas, democratic socialist Greg Casar cruised to victory in his primary while Jessica Cisneros forced a longtime conservative incumbent into a runoff—welcome news for those taking on the Democratic Party establishment.
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On Tuesday night, Texas Democratic primary voters handed a victory to one progressive candidate and sent another to a May 24 runoff against a conservative incumbent. Austin Councilman Greg Casar, a democratic socialist running in the state’s 35th congressional district, won his race against three other candidates including Eddie Rodriguez, a longtime state House representative endorsed by the centrist New Democrat Coalition. Casar trounced his opponents with over 60 percent of the vote.
A few miles south, in a district spanning the San Antonio suburbs to the rural Rio Grande Valley, immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros won enough of the vote to force nine-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar to a runoff election. Cuellar — who Cisneros dubbed “Trump’s favorite Democrat” for his anti-abortion stance, support for the border wall and embrace of Koch money — previously beat his left challenger in the 2020 Democratic primary.
The candidates were endorsed national progressive figures and groups such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party. Both are young: Cisneros is 28 and Casar is 32. (The average age for a U.S. House representative is 58.) And both candidates ran on left-wing platforms including Medicare for All, stronger unions, a higher minimum wage, reproductive rights and support for communities of color.
“This victory in Texas wasn’t just about my name on the ballot,” Casar told In These Times on Wednesday. “I think this victory shows that progressive policies are popular when we stand by them. It was really our shared vision of 15 dollars an hour, Medicare for All, restoring reproductive rights, and restoring voting rights that won last night.”
“Last night shows that the path forward in the South is for us to keep organizing and pushing for what working families actually need,” Casar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, added. “We’ve been building a movement for progressive change here from Austin to San Antonio for years.”
Casar and Cisneros both faced attacks by their primary opponents over their commitments to progressive policies.
Rodriguez, Casar’s principal opponent, sent out mailers accusing the progressive councilman of “making the city less safe” by repealing Austin ordinances that banned public camping and panhandling — part of an effort to decriminalize homelessness. Twelve Texas Democrats, including two of Rodriguez’s state House colleagues, signed a letter condemning his “Republican-style campaign tactics” that “fear monger about unhoused people.”
Cuellar, the only sitting Democratic representative opposed to abortion, aired ads declaring that Cisneros was “backed by the defund the police movement” and has “pledged to defund the border patrol and our immigration courts.”
“The voters will decide this election,” Cuellar told Newsweek in February, “not far-left celebrities who stand for defunding the police, open borders, eliminating oil and gas jobs, and raising taxes on hard working Texans.”
With airing these attacks, Cuellar’s campaign was dealing with some internal problems. On Jan. 19, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office, reportedly as part of an expansive federal investigation into the activities of several American businessmen in Azerbaijan, a Central Asian nation formerly part of the Soviet Union. Since the runoff was announced Wednesday, Cisneros’ campaign says she has already raised $240,000.
“For years, South Texans have been demanding change,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. “Now Jessica has the momentum to win the run-off against Cuellar and then take on the GOP’s agenda of division and greed with a vision for shared prosperity.”
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, told In These Times that Casar’s win and Cisneros’ advancement to a runoff were significant, given the defeats some high-profile progressives have recently suffered. “We understood the stakes,” he said. “We understood how, in my experience, progressive losses are always used in the mainstream media, by corporate Democrats and others in the establishment, to paint with a wide brush and tell a general story about progressives.”
During the Trump era, left challengers won a number of statement victories over centrists in Democratic primaries — namely Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018 and Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D-N.Y.) 2020 ousting of 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel. But under Joe Biden’s presidency, they often haven’t fared as well.
Nina Turner, a national surrogate for the Bernie Sanders campaign endorsed by the Working Families Party, lost a hard-fought primary contest in Ohio to Shontel Brown, who was endorsed by establishment Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and House Majority Whip James Clyburn. And democratic socialist India Walton, the Democratic candidate for Buffalo mayor in 2021, failed to win the seat after her defeated primary opponent, incumbent Mayor Byron Brown, staged a successful general election write-in campaign.
“It takes ten progressive victories to intervene in the centrist narrative machine,” Mitchell said.
Some establishment Democrats have sought to distance the party from progressive policies, even extremely popular ones such as universal healthcare, by offering their own agenda of more milquetoast, bipartisan measures. And high-ranking centrists are running a PAC to stave off left challenges to Democratic incumbents, called Team Blue, which is raking in funds from corporations and lobbyists.
But heading into this year’s midterms in the face of a challenging political climate, Mitchell said that the Democratic Party should pay attention to the results in Texas. “It would be wise for Democrats interested in winning and expanding their majority in tough times to take some lessons from Tuesday,” he said.
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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York.