A 28-year-old progressive activist is hoping to defeat a nine-term member of Congress in a Democratic primary run-off on Tuesday night, in a race that has underlined the party’s broader shift to the left.
Jessica Cisneros, a human rights lawyer, is taking on Henry Cuellar, the longstanding member for Texas’ 28th congressional district, after the two candidates were separated by just over 1,000 votes in the initial primary vote in March.
Even if Cisneros loses, those on the left of the party believe her success is evidence that it is moving in their direction, even as president Joe Biden attempts to pull Democrats on to more centrist ground.
Aaron Chappell, political director of the progressive campaign group Our Revolution, said: “The fact Cisneros has forced a long-term incumbent into a run-off is a victory in itself. When you add it to the other victories progressives have had in the primaries so far, we are very excited about the way things are moving.”
Cisneros first took on Cuellar in 2020, having worked as an intern in his office six years previously.
In that election, she lost by just over 2,500 votes. This time, however, she has closed the gap, boosted by a campaign that has focused on abortion rights and Cuellar’s own anti-abortion views.
Her success is the latest in a string of impressive performances by progressive candidates, even as Biden urges the party to focus on high inflation and reject causes such as “defund the police”.
In March, Greg Casar, the leftwing former member of the Austin city council, won the nomination to be the member of Congress for Texas’ highly liberal 35th Congressional district. In Oregon, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who was backed by several progressive groups, looks to be headed for victory over the incumbent Kurt Schrader, one of the few Democrats to be endorsed by Biden.
In Pennsylvania, progressives are also claiming success in John Fetterman’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for the US Senate. Fetterman supports expanding government provision of healthcare and raising the minimum wage, but he differs from most on the left of his party in his opposition to the Green New Deal.
Leftwing campaigners say their cause has been helped by frustration in the party at Biden’s stalled legislative agenda, which they blame on conservative Democrats supported by corporate donations.
Schrader was given more than $144,000 by people in the pharmaceutical industry in 2019-20, according to data analysed by OpenSecrets. His opponents criticise him for having pushed to decouple Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which contained new rules to curb drug prices, from the bipartisan infrastructure bill — a move many colleagues believe helped kill the president’s signature economic package.
Chappell, of Our Revolution, said: “We have been saying to the party that there will be a price to pay if you can’t deliver on this agenda, which was supposed to be Biden’s agenda, and which we backed as well.”
Democrats are likely to sustain heavy losses in this November’s midterm elections, dragged down by the president’s low personal ratings and a failure to pass key legislation.
Moderate groups say they are worried that the recent victories for leftwing candidates in safe seats will mean the Congressional party automatically swings to the left after November.
“Democrats will do badly in the House elections, and we will be left with a more left-leaning caucus,” said Will Marshall, founder of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute think-tank. “They are inevitably going to claim that they are now the view of the future, and they will be wrong.”