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Texas delivers a mixed message to the left

Progressives needed a good election night in Texas. They got something just short of that.

A liberal candidate won a closely watched congressional primary in Austin and another is headed to a runoff in a Dallas-area House race with a big lead. But the left was unable to deliver a knockout blow to the incumbent conservative Democrat they’ve been targeting for years.

Progressives had hoped a clean sweep of three House seats on Tuesday would give them a burst of momentum at the outset of a primary season that will feature a flurry of intraparty battles. With a significant number of Democrats stepping down this year, and congressional maps being redrawn, liberals have a larger-than-usual opportunity to reshape the party.

Though they fell short of their ultimate goal Tuesday, progressives can still claim a meaningful turnaround after losing races across the country in 2021.

“There were a few high-profile losses last year. Starting off the 2022 midterms with a progressive frontrunner and a victory out of Texas is incredibly important because we have more exciting races for the rest of the year,” said Aaron Chappell, political director of the Bernie Sanders-founded group Our Revolution, which called and texted its members on behalf of the left-wing candidates in Texas. “So many Democrats have retired. There are so many open seats where real progressives could win.”

The chance for progressives to set the tone for this year’s primaries led many of the biggest figures on the left — such as Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — to throw their weight behind liberal candidates in Texas. Progressive organizations like Justice Democrats, Indivisible and the Working Families Party also invested in the primaries.

It set liberals off to a more promising start than in 2021, when they lost a series of special elections for Congress as well as high-profile mayoral contests. Still, Tuesday’s marquee race — the primary challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas — ended with ellipses for the left. Progressive-backed Jessica Cisneros did not succeed in winning outright in her race against Cuellar, an opponent of abortion rights and foe of labor unions.

Instead, the two Democrats will go head-to-head in a May runoff. It will mark the third time they face each other, after Cisneros tried but failed to oust Cuellar in 2020.

Many of Cuellar’s former allies had left him for dead this time around. In January, the FBI raided his home and campaign office. Unlike in his previous race, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer did not campaign for him this year. But Cuellar lived to fight another day after running TV ads in a newly drawn district that accused Cisneros of being too far left.

That’s a potentially ominous sign for progressives, who have been locked in a battle with moderates over the impact of activist calls for policies such as “defund the police.” Centrist Democrats have accused liberals of making them more vulnerable to GOP attacks with unpopular slogans and politically untenable positions, while left-wing elected officials have argued that activists have brought much-needed attention to police brutality.

That debate was captured in Cuellar’s commercials attacking Cisneros as being “backed by the defund the police movement,” while stating that he is for “fully funding law enforcement and border security.”

Cisneros’ campaign said she does not support defunding the police.

With more than 99 percent of the expected vote in, Cuellar has a narrow lead of nearly 2 percentage points.

“No one I know in Texas Dem politics expected Cuellar to survive,” said a Democratic operative in the state who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “Cisneros should have realized that Border Patrol and police jobs are vital to the economic wellbeing of this district outside of greater San Antonio. It’s always about the economy.”

Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic political consultant who worked as a top staffer on both of Sanders’ presidential campaigns, said the mixed results demonstrated that progressives had sometimes been too fixated on issues that were unimportant to voters.

“It shows they can win, but it also means that’s only possible if the message is laser-focused,” he said. “The winning formula for progressive Democrats is focusing on economic opportunity and increased access and lower costs to health care. Those are the two main pillars. Everything else, you’re talking past people.”

At the same time, national progressives knew that Cisneros’ race would be the most difficult of the three primaries they targeted in Texas. It is a culturally conservative area, and political strategists expect it will be a swing seat in the general election. The strategy of groups such as Justice Democrats is to increase their numbers in Congress by running progressives in mostly safe Democratic districts — as opposed to highly competitive districts — making it a somewhat unique race for them.

In a deep-blue district that encompasses Austin and San Antonio, Democratic Socialists of America member Greg Casar easily defeated state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who was endorsed by the moderate New Democrat Coalition Action Fund. Casar helped cut police funding as a city council member, and promoted his endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders in a TV ad.

In an interview with POLITICO, Casar said his success was the result of more than a decade of political organizing in the region. Many on the left hope that Texas will one day vote like Georgia, a state that was red for years until it became a battleground after major investments by local and national Democrats.

“This race really shows the way the progressive movement is growing,” said Casar. “This election is just one important marker along the way that shows progressive change is possible not just on the coasts, but actually here in the heart of Texas.”

Referring to Casar, Chappell said that “to have somebody who’s basically a Squad member added to the Progressive Caucus in Congress is incredible.”

Jasmine Crockett, another progressive-backed candidate running in Dallas, has advanced to a runoff with a lead of more than 30 percentage points with 96 percent of the expected vote in. She will face Jane Hamilton, President Joe Biden’s Texas state director in the 2020 Democratic primary.

Liberals benefited from the fact that some big-spending moderate groups stayed out of the Texas races. In their view, moderates hadn’t gotten involved in advance of Tuesday’s election because their favored candidates were so weak.

Centrist Democrats, however, argued that their absence meant that the primary results weren’t a true test of the left’s muscle. Moderates could still reverse course and choose to get involved in the runoffs, particularly in the Dallas-based contest. But Crockett has a pair of well-financed cryptocurrency super PACs that could protect her from an onslaught of spending.

In the Cisneros versus Cuellar rematch, the Texas Working Families Party’s Organizing Director Mercedes Fulbright said “we expect to see a lot of momentum on the ground and funding from progressive allies going into the May runoffs” and “we believe Cisneros has a real chance of ousting Cuellar this time.”

If the end result after the May 24 runoffs is a trio of progressive victories, they’ll point to it as proof voters had embraced their argument that they have been the biggest allies to Biden — and that it’s moderates who are blocking his proposals.

In a rally in San Antonio last month, Ocasio-Cortez compared Cuellar to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who last year angered many liberals when he announced that he would not support Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Liberal candidates in upcoming congressional primaries from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin have used Manchin as a foil.

But with Cisneros unable to dethrone Cuellar, at least for the time being, progressives have not yet proven that Democratic voters believe moderates in their party are to blame for Biden’s agenda stalling. Cuellar was part of a group of centrists who threatened to block the budget if a bipartisan infrastructure bill did not immediately pass in the House — a move that was diametrically opposed to the left’s plan to pair that legislation with a massive social spending proposal in hopes of gaining leverage over Manchin.

Casar is all but guaranteed to win in November, as is Crockett if she succeeds in her runoff. But in the general election, Cisneros or Cuellar will have to fight to hold on to a seat in a part of the country where Republicans have been making gains. Biden would have carried the new district by 7 percentage points in 2020.

Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, said he is concerned about Cisneros’ ability to keep the seat if she defeats Cuellar in the runoff.

“If she wins, we’re rooting for her obviously, and strongly support all Democrats running for Congress. But we’re worried,” he said. “Far-left candidates who win primaries in swing districts tend to lose in the general election.”

Progressives, likewise, are anxious that the party base won’t turn out for Cuellar in November:

“What’s the agenda that Cuellar represents for the Democratic Party? What’s the vision? Because to us, it looks very uninspiring,” said Chappell.

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