National Republicans target Henry Cuellar’s South Texas seat after indictment

The move is a shift in strategy for Republicans who previously focused on other South Texas races even after federal authorities filed criminal charges against the Democrat.

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022. - Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at a Get Out the Vote rally in San Antonio on May 4, 2022.

This story was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans are prioritizing flipping Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s South Texas district as the incumbent campaigns under the cloud of a federal indictment alleging bribery, money laundering and working for a foreign government.

The National Republican Congressional Committee added Cuellar to its list of top targets, meaning it will invest money and resources into the race in the 28th Congressional District. Republican Navy veteran Jay Furman is challenging Cuellar.

The group was previously planning to focus on other races in South Texas after Cuellar soundly defeated his Republican challenger in 2022. The NRCC had targeted the district that year, pouring millions into the race to support Cassie Garcia, a former staffer to Sen. Ted Cruz. Cuellar beat Garcia by over 13 percentage points, discouraging GOP investment in the district for November’s general election.

Even after Cuellar’s indictment in early May, Republicans were largely muted in their response and instead focused on other South Texas races. The NRCC initially used the indictment to go after U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez in the 34th Congressional District and Democratic candidate Michelle Vallejo in the 15th Congressional District. The NRCC blasted those Democrats for not denouncing Cuellar, even though the Republican candidates also didn’t weigh in on the indictment.

But that changed after Furman won the Republican primary runoff in the district last week.

“Texans are fed up with Henry Cuellar’s corruption — only looking out for himself as their cost of living skyrockets and the border spirals out of control. These voters are ready for new leadership, and that’s what Republicans will deliver to the 28th District when we flip this seat," NRCC spokesperson Delanie Bomar said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors alleged Cuellar laundered money to accept bribes from the government of Azerbaijan and Banco Azteca, a Mexican bank. In exchange, Cuellar allegedly advanced policies backed by Azerbaijan, including involving its long-running dispute with Armenia. Cuellar also allegedly advocated and collaborated with the Mexican bank on policies that would benefit its business interests.

Cuellar said in a statement Monday that he is still confident he can win, despite his indictments, and that the NRCC’s investments won’t change his odds. Cuellar maintains his innocence.

“My constituents know my work, and the results speak for themselves. That’s why I was re-elected by an overwhelming margin with support from Democrats, Republicans, and Independents,” Cuellar said. “South Texas voters couldn’t care less who is or isn’t an NRCC ‘target.’ My constituents just want results.”

Cuellar has represented the district since 2005. His strong relationships in South Texas and across the political spectrum have made him exceptionally resilient to political challenges. After his indictment, he did not attract calls for his resignation. Even his former political rivals declined to talk about the indictment.

Two Republican candidates were vying for the nomination in the 28th District when the indictment landed: Furman and rancher Lazaro Garza. Neither had been seen as particularly competitive candidates, raising modest sums compared to Cuellar’s behemoth fundraising operation and having no formal experience in elected office.

Furman has also made statements in the past that would be at odds with House Republican leadership. He criticized House Speaker Mike Johnson’s decision to support sending aid to Ukraine and said he would need to have a long conversation with the speaker before accepting his help in the election.

Furman also vociferously opposed U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, in his primary in the neighboring 23rd District for being too moderate and part of the “establishment uni-party.” House Republican leadership endorsed Gonzales and invested nearly $10 million to defend him against right-wing primary challenger Brandon Herrera. Gonzales won in his primary run off last week.

But the NRCC began looking into reinvesting into the race for Cuellar’s seat after the indictment landed, reaching out to Furman ahead of last week’s primary runoff. The group waited until after Furman won the runoff to formally announce their involvement in the race.

This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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