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Opinion

Three Texas runoff battles in the ongoing Democratic Party civil war

On May 24 the establishment and progressive wings of the Democratic Party will face off in a trio of Texas Democratic congressional primary runoffs, providing a gauge of the support enjoyed by each faction among Democratic primary voters as we approach the midpoint of President Biden’s first term in office. And, in two of the three runoffs, the outcome will either enhance or undermine Democratic efforts to retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms.

The marquee primary runoff takes place in the 28th Congressional District, which stretches from Starr County and Laredo on the U.S.-Mexico border up to San Antonio. Nine-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar is being challenged for the second election cycle in a row by Jessica Cisneros, who, combined with a third candidate, kept Cuellar below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff on March 1.

Cuellar enjoys the backing of the U.S. House Democratic Leadership, while

Cisneros is supported by a who’s who of national progressive Democrats. On March 1, in a three-candidate race, Cuellar and Cisneros won 49 percent and 47 percent of the vote respectively.

The second congressional primary runoff takes place in the 15th Congressional District, TX-28’s neighbor to the east, which runs from the border town of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) up to the San Antonio exurbs. U.S. Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient Ruben Ramirez is a moderate backed by a variety of local business interests and trade unions along with national groups such as VoteVets and The Blue Dog Coalition. Michelle Vallejo (an RGV native) is a progressive supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the United Farm Workers of America and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, among others.

In a six-candidate race on March 1, Ramirez and Vallejo won 28 percent and 20 percent of the vote respectively, with Vallejo narrowly edging out John Villareal Rigney (19 percent).

The third congressional primary runoff takes place in the Dallas-based 30th Congressional District. This runoff is distinct from the other two in that the context in which the establishment and progressive groups backing each candidate are located is more local than national. Jane Hope Hamilton is a long-time Democratic political operative and is supported by a broad cross-section of the Dallas Democratic establishment. Jasmine Crockett is a first-term Texas House member who during the 2021 legislative sessions had the most liberal voting record of any of the 150 Texas House members. Crockett is endorsed by the retiring TX-30 incumbent, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, 19 of her fellow Texas House Democrats and by two cryptocurrency trader Super PACS (Protect Our Future PAC, Web3 Forward) that have to date spent a combined $2.4 million in support of Crockett’s candidacy. In a crowded nine-candidate field on March 1, Crockett (49 percent) came very close to crossing the 50 percent barrier needed to avoid a runoff, with almost three times the support received by Hamilton (17 percent)

Similar to 35 of the Lone Star State’s 38 U.S. House districts after the 2021 redistricting process, TX-30 is not in play this fall, and whoever wins the Democratic primary runoff is a lock to triumph in November and head to Congress in January 2023. In contrast, the 28th and 15th Congressional Districts are the only two Texas districts considered to be in play in November, with the races destined to become more or less competitive depending on the outcome of the May 24 runoffs.

A Cuellar victory in the May 24 runoff would boost Democratic prospects of retaining control of TX-28, while a Cisneros victory would diminish them. As a centrist Democrat, Cuellar’s policy positions, including his tepid pro-life position, while causing him headaches in the primary, are closer to those of the average TX-28 November voter than are the policy positions of the unabashed progressive Cisneros or those of either of the Republican candidates competing in their own May 24 runoff (Cassy Garcia on the center-right and, especially, the ultraconservative Sandra Whitten).

On March 1, Monica De La Cruz captured the TX-15 GOP nomination in the first round, winning 57 percent of the vote against eight other competitors. De La Cruz will be favored to win in TX-15 in November, regardless of who the victor of the Democratic primary is. But De La Cruz’s likelihood of victory will be higher if she draws the more progressive Vallejo as her general election opponent rather than the more moderate Ramirez.

The Republican Party has been working on the construction of a 2023 U.S. House majority via redistricting, candidate recruitment and campaigning. Victories by the progressive Cisneros and Vallejo on May 24 would help GOP efforts to flip the U.S. House in November 2022, while victories by the moderate Cuellar and Ramirez would hinder the Republican goal of taking control of the U.S. House later this year.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today.” Follow him on Twitter @MarkPJonesTX.

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