After U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s indictment, why aren’t Republicans trying to flip his district?

US Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, at The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2022 in Austin. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — Republicans eager to flip Democratic districts in South Texas are capitalizing on U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s indictment — just not in his district.

National Republican fundraisers and strategists, who invested heavily in unseating the Laredo Democrat last election cycle, are showing no signs yet that they are planning to take advantage of Cuellar’s fresh legal drama to make another run for the seat this year. Locally, the congressman’s arrest sent a burst of energy into the sleepy GOP primary runoff in the district, with candidates pouncing on the allegations. But their enthusiasm has not yet been matched with a promise of outside investment.

Instead, Republicans are loudly tying Cuellar’s allegations of bribery and corruption to other competitive races in South Texas, even though those Democratic candidates have no substantive connection to the alleged crimes. In the 34th district, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, is Republicans’ top target in the state, and the GOP hopes to portray the moderate member as a spiritual confrere to Cuellar.

[Two political consultants plead guilty in Henry Cuellar bribery case]

“Birds of a feather flock together, and it’s clear that Cuellar and Gonzalez are in the same self-serving politician flock,” Delanie Bomar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement. “While inflation and the border crisis hurt South Texas communities, Cuellar and Gonzalez are more worried about helping themselves.”

Gonzalez faces a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, who represented the district for the second half of 2022 after winning a special election that summer. Gonzalez defeated her in the general by 8.5 points that year.

Cuellar and Gonzalez are often grouped together as South Texas moderates who at times buck their party leadership on votes about fossil fuels or border security. Republican messaging aims to paint the two as belonging to an old generation of Democrats in South Texas, a region with a noted history of political corruption.

But Gonzalez blasted Republicans for insinuating Cuellar’s legal problems have anything to do with him. Gonzalez faces no allegations of wrongdoing.

“Mayra has a lot more to worry about being endorsed and following and loving a 92-time indicted orange master than I have by somebody who's two districts away and a very independent person,” Gonzalez said in an interview, referring to Flores’ endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who was indicted in four different cases ranging from election interference to falsifying hush-money payments to cover up an alleged affair.

In 2022, National Republicans set their sights on all three of Texas’ South Texas congressional districts — investing heavily — hoping to draw Latino voters to the right. In Cuellar’s district, the NRCC named his GOP challenger Cassy Garcia a “Young Gun,” deeming her a competitive candidate worth staffing and financial support from House Republican leadership.

Republicans only flipped one of the seats: the 15th District where Republican Rep. Monica De La Cruz bested Democratic candidate Michelle Vallejo for an open seat. Cuellar’s win over Garcia, even in the wake of the FBI raid on his home and office, was so steep that it dissuaded Republicans from wading back into the district. He won the race by over 13 points.

Now, Republicans are staying focused on defeating Gonzalez and protecting De La Cruz in her rematch against Vallejo.

The NRCC noted that Vallejo, like Gonzalez, hasn’t called on Cuellar to resign. Bomar said in a statement that the silence “means they either support Cuellar or that they don’t care he’s been indicted.” But De La Cruz and Flores have also stayed silent on the issue.

Cuellar faces charges of laundering money to accept bribes from Azerbaijan and a Mexican bank in exchange for using his perch in the House Appropriations Committee to advocate favorable bills. Cuellar led Democrats on the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security until the indictment was unsealed, at which point he was forced to step down by internal Democratic caucus rules. Cuellar’s wife, Imelda, is also charged in the scheme.

Cuellar asserts his innocence and his intention to win reelection this year. He is currently free but barred from traveling outside of South or West Texas and Washington, D.C. His trial is set to start in July. Three of his associates, including former campaign aide and chief of staff Colin Strother, have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with federal investigators.

Two Republicans are running in the 28th district: Navy veteran Jay Furman and rancher Lazaro Garzo. Neither has come close to raising the amount of money Cuellar has in the bank. Furman has raised just $178,000, of which over $150,000 he borrowed to run. Garza has raised over $295,000, of which $200,000 comes from loans.

Both Furman and Garzo seized on the indictment, issuing statements the day the indictment was released that Cuellar’s alleged corruption had no place in Congress.

“When you have an indictment as bad as this, there's no running from it,” Furman said in a recent interview.

In the March 5 primary, Furman led with 44.8% of the votes compared to Lazaro’s 27.1%.

Cuellar meanwhile is a reliable fundraiser for the Democrats, having raised over $1.9 million this cycle with over $415,000 in the bank. He donates faithfully to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which rallied to his defense when he was challenged last cycle. He also often supports his fellow Democrats in more competitive races, though NRCC has called on those Democrats to return their donations.

For Republicans to invest in their candidates in the district, they would need to expend considerable funds that they may not have. Democrats have far outraised Republicans in House races this cycle, with the DCCC finishing the first quarter of 2024 with over $71 million in cash on hand. That’s $15 million more than the NRCC.

“We welcome them to spend their money in South Texas because that's going to help us win seats around the country,” Gonzalez said. “They lost our district by more than 8.5 points with $7 million invested [last cycle]. They did the same in Cuellar’s district and they lost that one by 13 points.”

And even if the NRCC were to spend in the race, Furman is skeptical of House Republican leadership. He said he would need to have a long conversation with House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana on his recent moves to approve aid for Ukraine before he could accept his help. Furman said he is proud of his grassroots run, though he acknowledges he is up against a “behemoth” and that he would take help from other groups if he deemed them ideologically aligned with him.

Furman has also made statements sure to ruffle feathers with House Republican leadership, potentially limiting the national party’s enthusiasm in the district. Furman has openly derided U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, a moderate Republican in the 23rd Congressional District backed by House Republican leaders, as part of the “establishment uni-party” and “Phony Tony.” Furman endorsed Gonzales’ right-wing primary challenger Brandon Herrera, who has gained the backing of the often rebellious House Freedom Caucus.

Garza did not respond to a request for comment. Furman and Garza will face off in a runoff on May 28.

Cuellar has also spent years investing in ties across the district and Congress that could play in his favor. He hasn’t attracted the calls to resign that other lawmakers indicted this year have faced.

Still, Cuellar’s political resiliency will be tested during his trial. Michael Weinstein, a former Department of Justice attorney, said that a “federal criminal case should and does take up a significant amount of time for a defendant, whether they're a congressman or not.”

Republican interest in the district could also change depending how the trial goes. Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both changed their rating for the race from likely Democratic to leans Democratic.

“Congressman Cuellar is an aggressive campaigner. He's a hard worker. He's dedicated his life to public service. And I think he'll give it a good run this time around,” Jose Borjon, a former Gonzalez chief of staff who has worked on South Texas campaigns. “But I think it's too early to say given that the indictment is still fresh.”

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