By the time Dr. Hector Gonzalez arrived in Laredo, Texas in 2001, the last abortion clinic had already closed. He spent the next 20 years experiencing first-hand the predominantly Hispanic and heavily Catholic community along the border with Mexico.
“It was definitely ‘No Abortion,'” said Gonzalez, the city’s former director of public health.
That culture has helped protect the area’s nine-term congressman, Henry Cuellar, who is one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. But he faces the toughest challenge of his career on Tuesday in a runoff election against his progressive rival Jessica Cisneros, a 28-year-old immigration lawyer who supports abortion access.
With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to potentially strike down abortion rights in a ruling this summer, the runoff is being closely watched over whether the issue will animate Democratic voters. An infusion of money that outside groups have been pouring onto the field and through television in South Texas is an indicator of a major race, as abortion rights advocates try to lower expectations about more implications. wide.
“National trends are not defined by an election and are not determined by an election,” said Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List, which supports women who support abortion rights and endorsed Cisneros.
Either way, the race will provide insight into the direction of the Democratic Party. Progressives have won notable victories so far this primary season, beating a moderate candidate in last week’s Senate primary in Pennsylvania and potentially unseating an incumbent congressman in Oregon, where vote counting is ongoing.
Eager to protect an incumbent, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed Cuellar even as she reaffirms her steadfast support for abortion rights. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third House Democrat, campaigned with Cuellar in Texas this month, saying the top priority should be keeping the seat in party hands. Cisneros, he argued, stood to lose to a Republican.
Still, a leaked draft of the court’s decision in April rocked what was already a close — and increasingly expensive — race. In the March primary, Cisneros secured about 1,000 votes behind Cuellar, forcing a runoff after none of the candidates reached the majority threshold to win. It was as close as Cuellar came to losing his 17-year grip on the seat.
But the run-off also exemplified the surge the US abortion rights movement is facing this fall by staging an all-out assault on opposing incumbents — a challenge that’s on display even here in a staunchly Democratic region, not to mention the upcoming fight in Republican-leaning quarters.
The result could reveal the limits of abortion as a galvanizing issue for voters. A national poll before the draft’s leak found abortion lagged other concerns, including high inflation and gun control.
“People here are pretty liberal,” said Martha Cerna, 76, a retired schoolteacher in San Antonio who supports abortion access. “But the further you go to Texas, the worse it gets.”
Cerna lives in a slice of the Cuellar district that is more than two hours drive north of his hometown of Laredo. She had turned up early in downtown San Antonio for an abortion rights march and took shade from the scorching South Texas sun in a plaza outside the City Hall, where the current mayor and a predecessor, former presidential candidate Julian Castro, are outspoken for abortion rights. .
Cisneros joined the march, but Cerna said voters here aren’t the ones who need convincing. “That’s why I think it’s going to be a tough sell for her, because there will be Democrats who want to go with Cuellar,” she said.
Cisneros, who once interned for Cuellar but now carries the Democrats’ left-wing endorsements and agenda, has leaned into the contrast over abortion in recent weeks.
When a South Texas grand jury indicted a woman with murder in April for a voluntary abortion, it happened in one of the district’s rural counties. The charges were quickly dropped after sparking national outrage, but Cisneros flagged it as a case of prosecution for seeking health care.
“When we take the time to talk to people about what it really means to be pro-choice, which is to believe that the government shouldn’t be in the middle of these kinds of private decisions and asking for abortions, then people usually realize they’re pro-choice,” she said in an interview.
Cuellar brushed off the impact of the Supreme Court leak at a rally in San Antonio this month, saying voters know his position. His powerful congressional allies have defended their support for Cuellar, in part saying a loss would open the door for Republicans toppling the district that also leans more conservative on gun rights and border security.
In Laredo, where Cuellar’s brother is the county sheriff, Gonzalez remembers getting “a lot of heat” when his health department started offering birth control pills. – which now has the only clinic on the Texas-Mexico border – or San Antonio.
At a food truck outside San Antonio, Citi Ramos, 64, wept as she described her opposition to abortion while taking a break from serving tacos and burgers to customers. She called herself a Democrat and a strong Catholic who does not usually get involved in politics. But, she said, Cisneros’ position is one she cannot ignore.
“I urge everyone to vote,” she said. “It’s a big issue for me.”
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