In Texas, Team AOC Seeks the Wins It Badly Needs

SAN ANTONIO — The admirers who packed into a music venue here to see Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) earlier this month arrived in the trappings of her movement. I spotted dozens of shirts with some variation of her likeness and as many tote bags touting the Green New Deal. Many wore masks registering contempt for the very unmasked Texas Gov. Greg Abbott .(“My governor is an idiot!” if they were polite; “Fuck Greg Abbott!” if they weren’t.) When I asked attendees about their support for Jessica Cisneros, the progressive House candidate Ocasio-Cortez had come to boost, they replied in a progressive parlance: the need to pass Medicare for All, to cancel student debt, and to purge the party of corporate interests.

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But there aren’t enough Green New Deal tote baggers in Texas’s 28th congressional district to deliver the 28-year-old immigration attorney to victory on Tuesday. That outcome relies on voters like a pair of sisters that Carlos Soto, a devoted Cisneros door knocker, met in a rough southeast San Antonio neighborhood last weekend. They didn’t like Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), Cisneros’ primary opponent, but they didn’t know much about the election. “You know, we’re going to need you,” Soto pleaded. Neighborhoods like theirs, Soto explains, are full of voters who feel the way those sisters do, but rarely make it to the polls to vote.

Cisneros is waging her second challenge against Cuellar, a conservative and scandal-ridden incumbent who’s tailor-made for her to beat. Greg Casar, a progressive former Austin city council member, is running in a neighboring deep-blue district that’s tailor-made for progressives to win. Both races come with high stakes for progressives, a wing of the Democratic party whose influence has been contracting in Washington and is increasingly blamed for Democrats’ poor midterms prognosis. The conditions look promising for both candidates to win on Tuesday night. For their movement’s sake, they must.

Soto and I walked together in southeast San Antonio after Ocasio-Cortez’s rally. Dobermans snarled at us from behind chain-link fences as Soto approached the modest bungalows to ask for votes. Few came to the doors as the sun began to set, so Soto dropped off flyers, printed in both Spanish and English, that promised Cisneros is running to “fight for the right for health care” while Cuellar has been “playing politics” on the matter. Soto had more luck in that part of town the following weekend, when a Latino man answered the door and told Soto didn’t know much about Cuellar. “I told him about Cuellar voting against the unions,” Soto explains, translating Cuellar’s vote against a bill to strengthen federal labor laws. “Oh,” the man replied. “Then we gotta get him out of there.”

Soto’s shoe-leather stumping encapsulates Cisneros’ strategy. Residents of the district, a narrow swath of South Texas stretching from San Antonio to Rio Grande, routinely cross the US-Mexico border to seek dental and medical care they can actually afford. Many residents live in poverty; a job in federal law enforcement along the militarized border offers one of the few pathways to the middle class. This is a place, in other words, that should be ripe for progressives’ policy prescriptions — if only voters would elect a lawmaker who’d fight for those prescriptions. “I’m a really big supporter of Medicare for All because, had we had that, I might actually have my aunt, who passed away from cancer” because she lacked medical insurance, Cisneros explains. “When we talk about the Green New Deal, it’s like — what if we had different kinds of good-paying jobs that would actually help us address the climate crisis?”

Is that how she describes it on the doors in South Texas? “It depends, obviously, on who you’re talking to,” Cisneros replies. She credits her campaign with informing voters how the left’s favorite catch phrases are, in fact, policies designed for them. “We’ve made a lot of headway — ​​like even Medicare for All, people understand it more and more.” While Ocasio-Cortez jazzed the crowd with the left’s greatest hits, Cisneros’ stump speech stuck to the story of her parents, who immigrated from Mexico thanks to the 1986 Immigration Reform Act and inspired her own legal career. “I say this all the time: I don’t support progressive policy because it’s progressive,” she explains. “I actually support it because I think it’s the best way that we can speak to the challenges that people face in this district.”

Not that she’s keeping much daylight between herself and the left’s front ranks. Like her first run, Cisneros has the backing of Justice Democrats, the political organization behind successful progressive primary challenges that seeks to purge corporate-aligned centrists like Cuellar from the party. Besides her rally with Ocasio-Cortez, Cisneros has lately held events with Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led guardian of the Green New Deal. It’s not even clear that she needs to distance herself from progressive all-stars: Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) bested Biden in several counties in Texas’ 28th during the 2020 presidential primary.

Cuellar has leaned on these high-profile visits to attack Cisneros, scoffing at the support she’s received from “far-left celebrities” like Ocasio-Cortez. “They’re out of touch with my district,” he told Politico last week. Cisneros and her allies are banking on Cuellar being the one who’s out of touch. Cuellar has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, is skeptical of clean energy, and is one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in federal office. During Donald Trump’s presidency, Cuellar voted with him 70 percent of the time. That’s not really a problem, necessarily, for a Democrat in south Texas — especially in a district that just barely favors Democrats. But a recent FBI raid on Cuellar’s home and campaign headquarters could be. A recent poll from a Republican candidate in the race gave Cisneros a seven-point advantage over Cuellar, a shift from a December poll that found the race in a dead heat.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lent her own star power to Cuellar last cycle with a visit to Laredo during the primary’s final stretch. She’s withheld her endorsement — as did Team Blue PAC, a political group led by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that seeks to protect incumbent Democrats from primary challenges. (“No specific reason,” Jeffries said when Rolling Stone asked him why he took a pass on Cuellar.) Cisneros’ left-wing allies have adjusted accordingly. Instead of pillorying Cuellar on policy, Justice Democrats have blanketed the South Texas airwaves with an advertisement that slams the incumbent for taking rides on private jets with donors and fixing his BMW with money from his campaign coffers.

Cisneros’ victory may not be a validation of the left’s policy salience as much as a rejection of Cuellar’s alleged corruption. Soto tells me he still meets people at the doors who tell him Cisneros is too progressive for their taste, or they stand with Cuellar on his anti-abortion position. The FBI raid is a different matter. “People tell me they’ve seen the news and they aren’t going to vote for Cuellar anymore,” Soto says.

Democratic Congressional candidate Greg Casar speaks during a rally, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, in San Antonio.

Eric Gay/AP

Another nearby primary presents a purer test of progressive staying power. Greg Casar is running to fill the open seat in Texas’ 35th congressional district, which interlocks with the 28th in San Antonio and stretches for 100 miles northward to Austin. The slender strait connects the historically Black and rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods in the two metropolises with the majority working-class Latino community settled along State Highway 35, gerrymandered to insulate the metropolises’ Democrats from sullying the elections of their otherwise conservative neighbors. It’s a place with a more natural affinity for progressive parlance. Sanders, too, had been a favorite in 2020, but so had Warren, who barely registered among voters in the 28th district; an internal Casar campaign poll determined Ocasio-Cortez was the district’s most popular political figure. “It’s a place where folks overwhelmingly want to see a change in the way that Texas is governed,” Casar says. “The difference between the constituents and state officials could not be more stark than in this district.”

The 32-year-old Casar, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, first won a seat on Austin city council in 2015 alongside an insurgent progressive class not unlike the Squad he seeks to join. He took the lead on establishing paid sick leave for Austin workers and closing tax breaks for the wealthy. And yet there’s some evidence that Casar’s brand of left-flank lawmaking is falling out of vogue among his ultra-progressive Austinites. Voters passed a ballot measure last fall to criminalize the homelesses’ public encampments in the city, reversing a policy he had fought for in 2019. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Tex.), Casar’s more mainstream liberal primary opponent, has criticized Casar’s efforts to reduce police funding, banking on the backlash to police reform efforts that has characterized recent Democratic contests.

In his two appearances with Ocasio-Cortez in San Antonio and Austin, he unabashedly embraced Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and canceling student debt from the rally stages. He spoke proudly of his progressive initiatives in an interview with Rolling Stone. “When there were actual populist movements and labor movements, there was the opportunity to be responsive,” he says. “I think in this district, it also actually reflects where a lot of working Texans are, not just in progressive places like this,” Casar says.

The pilgrimage of progressive personalities to Texas in recent weeks suggests the stakes of this primary opening salvo. Besides Ocasio-Cortez and Warren, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive caucus, swung through Austin last weekend to lend Casar her left-wing bona fides. There is a general acknowledgment among progressive leaders that they need to win in Texas because, lately, they haven’t won much. Nina Turner, a top aide to Sanders’ presidential campaign, lost a special election to fill a U.S. House seat in Ohio last August. Progressive candidates failed to make inroads in the New York City mayoral race and lost to Eric Adams, a candidate who drew an intentional moderate contrast to his left-wing opponents. As the losses pile up, so too do the election post-mortems declaring the once-ascendant movement is in decline.

President Biden began his administration embracing his party’s left flank and adopting its most popular policy positions as his own. The White House and progressives fought together for the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion domestic spending agenda intended to transform the U.S. economy and social safety net. Biden’s warmth faded over the course of 2021, however, as centrists balked at the spending and ultimately killed the bill. In recent months, the left has borne the brunt of the blame for Democrats’ lack of legislative wins. “On the ground, we’re seeing progressives being punched in the gut around misconstruing the role that we’ve played in our ability to move things forward nationally,” says Natalia Salgado, the director of federal affairs for the Working Families Party. The shift in blame has been “baffling,” adds Leah Greenberg, a co-founder of progressive grassroots group Indivisible who lives in Austin.

The political setbacks and blame game coalesce into weighty stakes for these races. “If Jessica and Greg win these primaries, then we head into the 2022 cycle with a little bit of momentum,” says Tory Galvito, a native Texan and co-founder of Way to Win, a progressive donor organization. “If they lose, the other narrative sets in, and it’s a narrative everyone’s been waiting for.” How does that land for the candidates? “I don’t want to say I feel pressure, but I feel the responsibility,” Cisneros says.

President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, which, if past is prologue, will offer some call to unity for his party and country. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a member of the Squad, will give a progressive response, in which she’s expected to criticize Republicans and moderate Democrats for stonewalling the agenda her wing of the party shared with their president. But the left’s real rebuttal that night will come from Texas, once the primary election results have been tabulated.

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