House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has endorsed conservative-leaning Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) for reelection in 2020 as he fends off a primary challenge from progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros.
Pelosi, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has a policy of supporting Democratic incumbents in the House, but the speaker said Saturday that she would have backed Cuellar regardless.
“Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely, absolutely,” Pelosi told Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, at the paper’s annual festival in Austin.
“I’m very, very proud of Henry’s work in the Congress, and I’m proud to support him — even if I didn’t have a policy of endorsing incumbents,” she said, reportedly drawing some boos from the crowd.
Cuellar, a seven-term Democrat, voted with President Donald Trump nearly 70% of the time in the last Congress. He’s collected thousands of dollars in donations from the National Rifle Association throughout his career and received an “A” rating from the gun-rights group in 2018.
“He’s Trump’s favorite Democrat,” Cisneros, an immigration attorney, said in her campaign launch video earlier this year. “Henry Cuellar voted to defund sanctuary cities and reproductive services for women’s health.”
Cuellar is one of several House Democrats with conservative voting records who are being targeted by the progressive group Justice Democrats in 2020. The group, which helped elect New York’s progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Congress last year, has now recruited Cisneros in the race for Texas’ 28th district.
In response to Pelosi’s endorsement of Cuellar, Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas on Monday called on the Democratic Party to embrace “our most fundamental values and put voters ahead of big corporate donors.”
“Nancy Pelosi endorsed someone who calls himself a ‘Democrat’ but fundraises for Republicans and receives support from the NRA, private prisons, Big Oil, and the Koch Brothers,” Rojas said.
“This moment in our nation’s history demands leadership with clarity on where we stand on reproductive rights, gun violence, climate change, and the influence of corporate money in our democracy,” she added.
Colin Strother, a spokesman for Cuellar’s reelection campaign, applauded Pelosi for recognizing “the value of diversity in our party and our caucus.”
“Henry is always the first member to pay his entire dues to the DCCC, writes dozens of checks to fellow members, and travels the country to help in targeted races,” Strother said. “His opponent has no record of supporting Democratic candidates and has only sporadically voted in Democratic primaries. Yes, he is a moderate, but he is the only candidate in this race with a proven record of supporting Democrats.”
Despite the DCCC’s policy of backing incumbents, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary race, endorsed Cisneros earlier this month.
“The people of Texas’ 28th district are ready for systematic change and deserve a Democrat that will be on the side of working people; not the side of big money and obstructionist Republicans,” Warren said in a statement released by Cisneros’ campaign. “I believe Jessica Cisneros is that fighter.”