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Henry Cuellar says liberals targeting him don’t understand his district

Texas congressman says his polling shows his Democratic constituents are moderates

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, is among the more conservative Democrats in the House. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar said Friday that the liberal Democrats recruiting primary challengers against him are in for a rude awakening. 

The Washington Post first reported that Justice Democrats, a group targeting sitting Democratic lawmakers, launched a fund to support a primary challenge against Cuellar, one of the more conservative House Democrats.

Justice Democrats supported New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her successful primary against former Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, but most of their endorsed candidates lost their bids for Congress in 2018. A Justice Democrats spokesman declined to comment Friday on other districts the group is eyeing in 2020. 

“I’ve been polling and my district is more moderate, conservative Democrats, and I think an outside group that thinks that they know South Texas politics better than I do are going to find [that] out,” Cuellar told reporters at the Capitol. 

Cuellar’s district along the southern border is solidly Democratic. He won re-election with 84 percent of the vote in 2018 and didn’t even face a Republican challenger (his opponent was Libertarian).  Hillary Clinton won the 28th District by 20 points in 2018.

Cuellar, who was first elected in 2004, is a former chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats. He voted with Democratic leadership 75 percent of the time in the last Congress, according to CQ's Party Unity Study.

Cuellar had the fourth lowest party unity score, ranking above only Democratic Reps. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is now in the Senate, Colin Peterson of Minnesota and North Carolina GOP Rep. Walter Jones

Justice Democrats have taken issue with Cuellar’s rating with the National Rifle Association, votes to ban federal funds for abortion, and votes supporting President Donald Trump’s priorities. Cuellar voted with Trump 67 percent of the time in the 115th Congress, the second highest score for a House Democrat behind Peterson, according to CQ Vote Watch.

Cuellar said Friday that he reflects his district and that the party should be open to members who differ ideologically.

“What happened to the Democratic Party being a tent?” Cuellar asked. “... I think they’re focusing on the wrong target. I think the goal is to expand Democrats and not go after Democrats.”

Referring to another Texas Democrat, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, Cuellar said, “LBJ, when he was also attacked by some liberal folks he said, ‘What’s the difference between a liberal and a cannibal?’ And the difference was, ‘Cannibals don’t eat their own.’”

Asked to respond to Cuellar's comments, Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shaid wrote in an email, "We agree with Cuellar that we have to elect more Democrats starting in TX-28 where the incumbent sounds more like a Republican."

Shahid also pointed to a Texas Tribune article noting that Cuellar helped fundraise for GOP Rep. John Carter last year, who was facing a formidable challenge from Democrat MJ Hegar. Carter won re-election by 3 points.

Shahid said the group having discussions with organizers and activists in the district and "there's a lot of energy and excitement to have someone who represents fundamental Democratic Party and progressive values."

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