First shot fired in Democratic civil war as 8-term incumbent gets a challenger

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By Benjy Sarlin and Alex Seitz-Wald  with NBC News Politics
Jessica Cisneros and Henry Cuellar
Jessica Cisneros and Rep. Henry Cuellar   -   Copyright  Jessica Cisneros for Congress; The Washington Post

Backed by the same progressive group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros announced Thursday her intent to unseat longtime Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.

The contest is likely to become a key flashpoint in the larger national struggle between the insurgent left and the Democratic Party establishment, a fight that exploded into the open when Ocasio-Cortez, now a freshman congresswoman from New York, toppled a top-ranking House Democrat in a 2018 primary.

Cuellar has long been on the left's target list because he represents a safe Democratic district, but is not as progressive as liberals would like on issues such as guns, abortion and immigration. According to a CQ Roll Call analysis, he voted with President Donald Trump more than any Democrat but one in the previous Congress at 67 percent of the time.He's also one of the only House Democrats who received the backing of the National Rifle Association in his campaign.

"Here's the truth: Henry Cuellar fights to protect Trump and the big corporations," Cisneros said in a video announcing her primary campaign. "I'm fighting to end the separation of families. I'll fight to pass a $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All and the Green New Deal, so that we can create jobs here at home."

Justice Democrats, which backed Ocasio-Cortez's primary bid, announced its support for Cisneros on Thursday, the group's first endorsement of the 2020 cycle.

"She represents the voices we so desperately need in Congress right now — millennial, working-class, Latina, first-generation immigrant, and dedicating her life to giving back to her community," the group's executive director, Alexandra Rojas, said in a statement.

Cuellar, who is serving his eighth term after first being elected in 2004, has argued his districtis misunderstoodand is more conservative than it appears, despite its blue partisan lean.

"I've been polling and my district is more moderate, conservative Democrats, and I think an outside group that thinks that they know South Texas politics better than I do are going to find [that] out," Cuellar told reporters in January, according to Roll Call.

In the 2018 midterm elections, progressive insurgents had better luck in deep blue districts like Cuellar's than purple battleground ones, where most of their favored candidates lost to Republicans.

Progressive and women's groups are already backing a challenge to Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., a moderate who opposes abortion rights, in a Democratic-leaning Chicago district. And more primary battles are expected to come.

However, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whose job it is to defend and elect Democratic members of Congress, has doubled down on its pledge to support incumbents, threatening to blacklist consultants and vendors who work for primary challengers to sitting Democrats.

Progressives want to grow the ranks of allies in Congress and build a bulwark that can drag the party further to the left in policy debates.

"That means in 2020 running primary challenges in safe Democratic seats with a slate of young, diverse progressive candidates," Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee wrote in an essay for In These Times, a progressive monthly magazine.