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Closely watched South Texas Democratic primary heads to a runoff

It's a rematch in South Texas: Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros. Two years ago, Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros to hold on to his seat.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
It's a rematch in South Texas: Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros. Two years ago, Cuellar narrowly defeated Cisneros to hold on to his seat.

The primary battle between longtime Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, a fixture of South Texas politics, and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros will continue on.

Neither candidate received more than 50% of the vote in Tuesday's primary, according to The Associated Press, meaning both will advance to a runoff in May. A third candidate, Tannya Benavides, got a small share of the vote and has been eliminated.

The Republican primary is set for a runoff as well.

Cuellar, 66, is a nine-term congressman who holds right-leaning stances on abortion rights and other issues and is considered one of the most conservative members of the House Democratic caucus. Two years ago, he won a narrow 4-point victory against Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer who has the backing of progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

This year's primary was jolted in January, when the FBI raided Cuellar's campaign office and Laredo home in a probe for which the specifics remain murky.

Cuellar has not been publicly accused of a crime by the law enforcement agency, but the raid — reportedly stemming from an investigation into U.S. businessmen and their ties to Azerbaijan, a detail NPR has not confirmed — provided campaign attacks for Cisneros, and quieted establishment support for Cuellar.

Cuellar denied any wrongdoing and campaigned on the funding he's brought back to the district. He painted Cisneros as a far-left, anti-police candidate whose politics wouldn't be able to work across the aisle and get things done in Congress.

Cisneros leaned heavily on the FBI raid and its implications that Cuellar is beholden to interests outside the district's working people.

A recent 30-second campaign spot from Cisneros' campaign dedicated 20 seconds to the FBI raid on Cuellar's properties, countering Cisneros as a fresh-faced alternative, unburdened by corporate special interests.

Republicans have their eye on the seat, especially after making gains in South Texas in the 2020 election.

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