U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (left) will face Jessica Cisneros in a runoff election in May.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (left) will face attorney Jessica Cisneros in a May 24 runoff election for the Democratic nomination in the 28th Congressional District. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas and Stephanie Marquez for the San Antonio Report

Embattled U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s political purgatory will extend into the spring.

Weeks after the FBI raided his home and office, one of Texas’ most powerful Democrats in Congress was unable to secure his party’s nomination Tuesday and will face progressive attorney Jessica Cisneros in what is expected to be a bitter May 24 runoff.

The race kept observers in suspense until Wednesday afternoon, when the final vote count gave Cuellar 48.4% of the vote — just a few votes below the majority needed to win outright. Cisneros came in second place with 46.9% of the vote.

Incumbents forced into primary runoffs rarely fare well. But a prolonged campaign could bring Cuellar mixed fortunes as he attempts to win a 10th term representing the 28th Congressional District that stretches from the San Antonio area to the Rio Grande.

In January, the FBI raided Cuellar’s home and campaign office, but released almost no details about why the bureau targeted the representative. Should it become clear he is not the subject of a criminal investigation, Cuellar could pick up momentum. But on the other hand, more FBI action around Cuellar could make his case to voters all the more difficult.

ABC News reported the raid was part of a federal grand jury probe and that subpoenas reportedly sought records from organizations with ties to Azerbaijan. Cuellar has taken particular interest in the oil-rich former Soviet republic. Cuellar has taken trips there and even co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus. Subpoenaes also sought records from three Texas-based companies with ties to Cuellar’s wife, Imelda, according to ABC News.

Prior to the FBI developments, this primary was an intraparty battle that has defined American politics over the last decade. Through Cisneros, national progressives have targeted Cuellar for two cycles. After a narrow, 4-percentage point primary win in 2020, he assembled a much stronger campaign this cycle, only to face national scrutiny after the raids.

Cisneros challenged Cuellar on several fronts, including on his abortion and health care stances. She charged that the nine-term incumbent was too conservative for the district, and she benefited from the support of a national donor network. She also benefited from the endorsements of U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and from the influential group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, EMILY’s List.

The eventual Democratic nominee will still face a ferocious fight against Republicans in November. After making inroads in South Texas in 2020, Republicans say they’re inclined to spend against the Democratic nominee.

On the Republican side, Cassy Garcia, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, will also head into a runoff against Sandra Whitten, the 2020 GOP nominee for the seat. Garcia obtained 23.3% of the vote and Whitten 18.2%.

First elected to public office as a state representative in 1986, Cuellar and his relatives are fixtures within the Laredo community. His brother, Martin Cuellar, is the Webb County sheriff. Their sister, Rosie Cuellar, lost her 2020 reelection bid as a county official in a Democratic primary.

The runoff will likely stoke debate about the propriety of the FBI raids so close to an election. Typically, the U.S. Justice Department avoids such public actions involving sitting officials during election seasons. In Laredo and Washington, many Democrats have raised questions about the FBI’s conduct, particularly because there was no indication as to what spurred the raids.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill...