And then there was one. Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar is currently the only pro-life Democrat in the House of Representatives. Maintaining that distinction now depends on a May runoff election. In the recent Texas primary, Cuellar received slightly more votes than Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration attorney lauded by the pro-abortion left. A third candidate captured enough support to keep Cuellar 761 votes below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid another round.
Cisneros’s star power among progressives and the press will likely put a spotlight on the south Texas race. Cuellar’s chances of defending his seat are also complicated by an FBI raid on his house in January. While speculation has focused on Cuellar’s links to Azerbaijani interests, it is not publicly known what the FBI was looking for, and Cuellar has not been accused of any crime. Yet images of federal agents on one’s doorstep are rarely a plus for any campaign.
Cisneros, who first ran against Cuellar in 2020 and was once an intern in his office, is hoping to repeat the “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” formula that brought down Chicago-area congressman and pro-life stalwart Dan Lipinski. (In 2020, Lipinski lost a primary to Marie Newman after narrowly beating back her challenge in 2018.) Should Cisneros succeed, she will conclude a trend that has seen the ranks of anti-abortion House Democrats reduced from well over a hundred in the 1970s.
Both Newman and now Cisneros have been embraced by progressive luminaries like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. On Twitter, AOC urged her followers to vote for Cisneros, and condemned Cuellar for being “an anti-choice Dem in a state where women & LGBTQ+ repro rights are under attack.” Newman and Cisneros also benefited from favorable national press and negative coverage of their opponents. HuffPost hit Cuellar for being the lone House Democrat to vote against the deceptively named Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would have prevented states from protecting the unborn prior to fetal viability, and for defending the Hyde Amendment, which blocks most public funding for abortion.
Cuellar has cast plenty of votes that make pro-choicers seethe, but he is not exactly a darling of the pro-life movement. In 2015, Cuellar voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill that would have established a national twenty-week ban on abortions. Yet he did not join fellow Democrats Lipinski, Collin Peterson, and Madeleine Bordallo as co-sponsors of the bill. That ambivalence is typical of Cuellar’s career.
Unlike Lipinski, Cuellar was not a regular at the March for Life. Cuellar has usually voted pro-life on bills directly about abortion, but his record on related topics is mixed. For example, in that same year of 2015, Cuellar voted against the Defund Planned Parenthood Act, and his lifetime rating from the National Right to Life Committee is 28 percent. But abortion absolutism rules the day for the Democrats, and any drop of pro-life blood requires strict segregation.
Lipinski was the last example of the once plentiful species of socially conservative, pro-union, white Catholic Democrats. Cuellar, whose district runs along the Rio Grande, is an exemplar of Hispanic Catholic Democrats who hold traditional views on life, family, and sexuality. The targeting of Lipinski and Cuellar is unsurprising, as the Democratic Party now largely treats support for abortion rights as a litmus test. The left reluctantly tolerates certain pro-life Democrats, like Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana or Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who can win in places where a socially liberal Democrat clearly could not. Should the demographic tide turn in a solidly blue district, as it has for Lipinski and Cuellar, then the internal purge is on.
Today’s intra-party animus over abortion is very different from the time when the likes of Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar championed the Hyde Amendment with support from President Jimmy Carter and a certain young senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. Nellie Gray, the founder of the March for Life, was a Democrat, as were many in the early right-to-life movement. Recall that the single-issue pro-life presidential campaign of New York activist Ellen McCormack was contested in the 1976 Democratic primaries.
That 1976 presidential cycle produced tectonic shifts in the official party platforms after Republican Senator Bob Dole consulted with McCormack in an effort to woo pro-lifers that had been spurned by the Democrats. Voters for whom abortion was a key concern then largely sorted themselves into the current party alignments through the 1980s and ’90s. Still, outliers like the stridently pro-abortion Republican Senator Arlen Specter or the pro-life Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak would make occasional cameos on the national scene at important political moments, such as the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court or the debate over Obamacare.
Today, as both parties are locked into their current abortions positions by passionate constituencies, others for whom abortion is but a secondary issue can find themselves marooned. Marist polling found that 41 percent of African-Americans and 55 percent of Hispanics identified as pro-life in 2018. This often means that these important voting blocs are far more conservative on abortion than the Democratic leaders they regularly elect.
Cuellar, whose district is overwhelmingly Hispanic, bucks that trend by providing a lone vote in the House who subtly reminds Speaker Nancy Pelosi that not everyone in the Democratic coalition agrees with the party’s increasingly strident abortion rhetoric. Whether he can keep that vote for the voiceless alive remains to be seen. If not, a chapter of American political history will close, and what was once “the party of the little guy” will, at least in the House of Representatives, completely become the party of abortion.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?