POLITICO: 'Green New Deal' Democrat aims for a Texas oil patch upset

Tuesday, March 3, 2020 - 11:45am

LAREDO, Texas — Liberal groups are laying a $1 million-plus bet that they can persuade voters in this oil-soaked corner of South Texas to elect a progressive, "Green New Deal" supporter while ousting one of the Democratic Party’s most conservative members of Congress.

Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration lawyer, is taking on eight-term Rep. Henry Cuellar in this week’s Super Tuesday primary, in what has become a proxy battle between the Democratic leadership and the left wing of the party. The contest also offers a preview of whether the kind of message that excites progressive activists — bans on fracking, phase-outs of fossil fuel, "Medicare For All" — could resonate in Texas if Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democrats’ nominee in November.

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On the other side, Cuellar has raised $1.8 million and entered the final weeks with a $2 million war chest — as well as the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, both of whom have stumped for him in the district. Alongside them are some odd bedfellows for Democrats: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the billionaire Koch family’s LIBRE Initiative Action, a Hispanic-focused libertarian group that hailed Cuellar as “the model of what an effective congressman should look like.”

At a "meet-the-candidate" event inside a Laredo strip mall tavern, Cisneros acknowledges that a climate-focused pitch in the Eagle Ford Shale region that has been at the center of the boom in U.S. oil and gas production is a hard sell. But instead of calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels, she's adapted the Green New Deal message to the district’s culturally conservative voters.

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But Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the Chamber of Commerce, which has disclosed spending $200,000 on ads mentioning the incumbent, said South Texas is a far cry from the New York district that Ocasio-Cortez won.

“This is a classic Texas free enterprise versus New York City socialism race,” Reed said. “Justice Dems is a movement looking for something to do, and we just think they picked the wrong place to make this a referendum on their leftist agenda.”

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