3 Exit Rep. Henry Cuellar's Campaign After FBI Raid On Home

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Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has raised far more in campaign funds than his challenger, Jessica Cisneros. But an FBI raid on Cuellar's home last month has given Cisneros new momentum. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) has raised far more in campaign funds than his challenger, Jessica Cisneros. But an FBI raid on Cuellar's home last month has given Cisneros new momentum. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

In the days after the FBI raided the home of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) in late January, three consultants employed by the campaign stopped working for his reelection bid.

The departing consultants were Chris Cantu, a data specialist; Andrew Kovach, a digital marketing consultant; and Bert Santibañez, a field organizing expert, according to two people familiar with their exit. All three Democratic consultants are based in San Antonio, and Cuellar’s progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, heavily outperformed him in 2020 in Bexar County, the part of Texas’ 28th Congressional District where San Antonio is located.

James Sonneman, a spokesperson for the Cuellar campaign, did not deny that the three men had left the campaign.

“We have a top-tier team on the ground, and our campaign has run an unprecedented outreach effort for the 28th Congressional District,” Sonneman said in a statement. “We are confident and ready to turn out our supporters with thousands of phone calls and door knocks between now and Election Day.”

In addition to the exits of the three consultants, the Voter Education Foundation, a “dark money” political nonprofit that aired ads attacking Cisneros, is no longer active, according to someone who used to work for the group.

The FBI conducted the raid on Cuellar’s home in Laredo as part of an effort to seek information about the congressman and his wife’s transactions with businesspeople and foreign officials from the oil-rich central Asian nation of Azerbaijan. It is unclear whether Cuellar and his wife are targets of the investigation; federal authorities have not brought charges against them.

Cuellar has denied that he did anything wrong and welcomed a federal investigation that he insisted would clear his name.

“Let me be clear: I’m running for reelection and I intend to win,” Cuellar said after the raid.

Still, the consultant departures ― and the closure of the Voter Education Foundation ― reflect the challenges that have arisen for Cuellar in the final weeks of his bid to fend off a second run against Cisneros, an immigration and human rights attorney who also hails from Laredo.

Both candidates have little time to make their closing arguments. The primary is March 1; early voting began Monday.

Cuellar has once again heavily out-fundraised Cisneros, but she has picked up some momentum following the FBI raid. Cisneros announced on Thursday that her campaign had raised $700,000 in the first six weeks of 2022 ― nearly twice as much as she raised in the final three months of 2021.

National progressive figures and groups have also begun playing a more active role in support of her race. Last Saturday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) headlined a rally in San Antonio in support of Cisneros and fellow progressive congressional candidate Greg Casar, who is running in the 35th District. This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed Cisneros, and the left-leaning pro-Israel group J Street Action Fund announced a $100,000 digital ad campaign in support of Cisneros this week that highlights the raid on Cuellar’s home.

Jessica Cisneros, a Laredo attorney, left, gets a campaign rally boost from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Saturday in San Antonio.  (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)
Jessica Cisneros, a Laredo attorney, left, gets a campaign rally boost from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Saturday in San Antonio. (Photo: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Cisneros also told HuffPost that in the wake of the FBI raid, she and her campaign workers have noticed greater receptivity to her bid when they knock on voters’ doors.

The raid “forced people to really think about their choice in terms of whether they were going to vote for Cuellar or this campaign a lot sooner than it did last time,” she said. “It also forced people to know that we are the most electable candidate.”

Cisneros, who was recruited by the left-wing group Justice Democrats, is running on a now-standard array of progressive positions, including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, student debt cancellation and aggressive immigration reforms. Cisneros surprised poll watchers in 2020 with an unexpectedly competitive bid that brought her within 4 percentage points of unseating Cuellar.

Cisneros’ second effort to unseat Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, reflects progressives’ belief that a Democratic-leaning seat should be represented by someone closer to the views of President Joe Biden, let alone a left-wing lawmaker like Ocasio-Cortez. Among other breaks with party orthodoxy, Cuellar opposes abortion rights and legislation to make it easier to form labor unions.

Still, Cuellar and his allies maintain that following a 2020 election cycle in which Democrats lost ground in South Texas’ heavily Latino border counties, a conservative Democrat is the safest bet to keep Texas’ 28th in Democratic hands. In 2020, Biden bested then-President Donald Trump in the district by 4 percentage points ― a marked decline from 2016, when Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by nearly 20 points.

Ed Cabrera, one of several Republicans running to take on whoever wins the Democratic primary in Texas’ 28th, attended a Republican counter-demonstration outside Ocasio-Cortez’s rally for Cisneros and Casar on Saturday.

Cabrera defended Cuellar, arguing that the FBI raid was part of some kind of Justice Department “hit job” to undermine him. He maintained that some Democrats’ view of Cuellar as too conservative speaks to a leftward shift that creates an opening for Republicans like him.

“They’ve moved so far to the left that they’ve left Henry Cuellar behind,” Cabrera said. “They’ve left Nancy Pelosi behind. Imagine: Nancy’s almost considered a moderate Democrat now! The Latino community is waking up.”

But Cabrera noted that the Republican Party is hoping to flip Texas’ 28th regardless of who wins the Democratic primary. The National Republican Campaign Committee, the GOP arm that helps elect Republicans to the House, announced in February that it was adding Cuellar to its list of “Battleground Democrats” whose defeat it was prioritizing.

“We have a pretty good chance this time around,” Cabrera said.

Alanna Vagianos contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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