Wednesday night’s rally alongside a member of Democratic leadership sought to boost support for U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in a part of his district that helped his progressive primary challenger push the longtime incumbent into a runoff.

Yet days after a draft ruling suggesting the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked to the media, Cuellar — one of the last remaining Democrats who doesn’t support abortion rights — talked about everything but the issue that’s now fueling his party’s base. 

“I’ve always focused on education, on health care,” Cuellar told supporters at Smoke BBQ+SKYBAR. “I created the first CHIP program … created the Texas Grant, the largest scholarship in Texas history.” 

Cuellar, who has served in Congress since 2005, is now locked in a close race against civil rights attorney Jessica Cisneros for Texas’ 28th Congressional District. Cisneros held him below 50 percent of the vote needed to win outright in the March 1 primary, forcing a runoff on May 24.

Cisneros is now campaigning hard on their differing opinions on abortion, and has the backing of well-funded liberal groups who are doing the same. 

“You know my position, I’m Catholic,” Cuellar said in an interview after the event. “My district… it is mixed in many ways.”

Cuellar said he’s talked to many constituents who agree with him and support at least some sort of limitations on abortion. 

“No movement on that,” he added of his own views

Bexar County gave Cisneros 67% of its vote in the March 1 primary — 8,778 votes in a race where she trailed by roughly 1,000 in the final tally.

Among some of the party’s most active members here, the issue of abortion is now a top concern.

“That’s what everybody wants to know about, especially from him,” said Josey Garcia, a Democrat running for the open Texas House District 124 seat.

Garcia took the stage somewhat cautiously Wednesday after the other speakers had finished, saying she wanted to address the “elephant in the room.” She went on to voice her support for abortion rights, as well as the importance of the issue in the party.

“I had to,” Garcia said in an interview after the event. “Nobody wants to talk about it, and everybody’s angry right now, especially women.” 

Garcia, a civil rights activist before she was a candidate, said she had hoped to speak with Cuellar about his position on the issue at the event but did not. 

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who ranks third in House Democratic Leadership, played up Cuellar’s clout in the House, where he serves on the Appropriations Committee and as one of Clyburn’s top allies for rounding up support on tough votes.

“When the [American Rescue Plan Act] came to the floor, the news media all over the country said we would not be able to get that vote,” said Clyburn. “[Cuellar] took his list [of lawmakers to lobby] and when that vote came to the floor, it passed.”

In an interview with the San Antonio Report, Clyburn downplayed the significance of abortion among his party’s base. 

“Does this issue carry more weight than voting [rights]? I don’t think so,” Clyburn said. “I think restoring the Voting Rights Act is a much weightier issue than this.”

Texas voters can participate in either party’s primary races. But voters who already cast a ballot in the March primaries can only participate in the same party’s runoff. 

Enthusiasm among both parties’ voters has been low since the March primary.

“It really gets down now to some mechanics. Who does the best job of turning out their voters in a low turnout primary runoff?” said Matt Angle, a longtime Texas Democratic strategist who is not working for either candidate in the race.

“San Antonio plays an important part of it because there’s a little bit more San Antonio in the district than before [redistricting],” he added. “And the question is, can Henry keep that from being something that causes him real trouble?”

Cisneros is getting help from national liberal groups who’ve spent big to help her in the primary. 

The group Working Families Party has staff in Texas helping Cisneros’ campaign, and has made 8,000 phone calls on her behalf, according to their communications director, Rob Duffey.

Meanwhile Cuellar’s campaign has lost campaign staff and struggled to keep up with Cisneros’ fundraising since the FBI raided his home earlier this year. In mid-April, Cuellar’s attorney said he was told by the Justice Department that the congressman was not the target of the investigation.

Asked who’s managing the reelection campaign, Cuellar’s chief of staff Jacob Hochberg said Wednesday night, “that’s me.”

Cuellar is now leaning on the grassroots support of some allies less often found in Democratic circles. 

He received praise Wednesday from the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which is telling its members to support him in the runoff.

“We have 1,500 members. I don’t know how many of them are Democrats,” said Rene Ochoa, who runs the group’s political action committee. 

Outside the rally, one liberal activist protested Cuellar’s event, in particular, the way young people were being treated over their reaction to the abortion issue.

“Getting mad at young people for being upset at this is just a gigantic slap in the face and the Democrats get everything that’s coming to them because this is a gigantic betrayal,” said Rick Trevino, a law student at St. Mary’s University. 

Once Bexar County’s Democratic Party secretary and a candidate in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, Trevino lamented about the way Democrats have marginalized an issue that was once more prominent.

“I met a lot of these guys working on the Wendy Davis campaign,” said Trevino, referring to the former Democratic state senator who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014. “What was that race about again?”

Abbott defeated Davis in that race 59% to 39%.

An earlier version of this story stated that Josey Garcia sent her campaign manager to speak with Cuellar at the rally. Garcia later said she “misspoke,” adding that she had hoped to speak with the congressman but did not. 

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Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.