LAREDO, Texas—Henry Cuellar is not hip. The representative from Texas is one of the last anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrats left in Congress—and he doesn’t apologize for it. He rails against socialism. He goes to church every Sunday and doesn’t drink or smoke. He votes with President Donald Trump more often than just about any other House Democrat.
When I talked with him late last month, he went off on Medicare for All. “Where are we gonna come up with $32 trillion?” he asked me. “What are you going to say to the thousands of people in my district who have insurance? That we’re going to take away their insurance and put them under socialized medicine?”
The congressman’s brand of centrism can feel out of whack in a Democratic Party that has swung to the left and could conceivably nominate a democatic socialist to take on Trump in November. Cuellar has been a target of progressive ire for a long time, but he has skated to reelection ever since he first won his seat, in 2004.
Not this year. In early 2019, Justice Democrats—a progressive PAC that helped Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and others successfully primary incumbent Democrats in 2018—pinpointed the seven-term congressman as among their biggest targets in 2020. In June, they announced their handpicked challenger: a 26-year-old immigration attorney and Laredo native named Jessica Cisneros, who also happens to be Cuellar’s former intern. To say that there’s a difference between them is an understatement: He has an A rating from the National Rifle Association; she’s pushing for tougher gun laws. He’s been in Texas politics since the 1980s; she graduated from law school less than a year ago.