Progressive group ramps up pressure to primary PAC-friendly Texas Democrat

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Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) attempts to get his Democratic colleagues on board with President Donald Trump’s new North American free trade deal, he’s facing pressure from a progressive Democratic group with rising influence within the party.

The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-aligned Justice Democrats group is raising money toward an effort to primary Cuellar, who represents Texas’ 28th district, labeling him the “most conservative Democrat in Congress” in a fundraising appeal. The group’s push comes as Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the Justice Democrats, pushes back against “NAFTA 2.0” over protections for pharmaceutical companies included in the deal.

Cuellar is one of few Democrats backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and has a low score with pro-choice groups. The Justice Democrats have taken aim at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) decision to blacklist political consultants who work with Democratic primary challengers, arguing it shouldn’t support conservative Democrats. The DCCC has defended its decision, arguing its goal is to protect every member of the Democratic caucus.

Cuellar has defended his record, arguing his district — which Clinton won by 20 points — is more moderate than it appears and is home to many conservative Democrats. That defense didn’t stop his progressive enemies from preparing a primary challenge.

Like most safe incumbent representatives who don’t draw interest from small individual donors, Cuellar takes in a lot of PAC money — a major point of contention for progressive groups pushing candidates to forgo contributions from corporate PACs. More than 62 percent of Cuellar’s 2018 campaign cash — over $1 million — came from business PACs, which include PACs for corporations and corporate-funded trade associations. Just 0.35 percent of the money came from small donors.

In another affront to progressive groups, affiliates of private prison contractor GEO Group make up Cuellar’s top campaign contributor, giving $32,400. PACs for oil & gas and defense companies, as well as trade associations, round out his list of top donors.

Though the Justice Democrats haven’t said who else they plan to primary, longtime incumbents with substantial PAC contributions could be in trouble. In 2018, Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), another longtime congressman residing in a safe blue district who took $1.3 million from business PACs in the 2018 election cycle.

Thirteen House Democrats took a higher percentage of their funds from business PACs than Cuellar in 2018. Below are the top 50 members by percentage of campaign money from business PACs.

CandidatePartyDistrictTotal RaisedItemized Total from Business PACsPct from Business PACs
Frank D LucasROK03$1,078,443$913,85385%
David ScottDGA13$1,099,687$921,24984%
John M ShimkusRIL15$1,966,005$1,595,58781%
Brett GuthrieRKY02$1,966,247$1,544,18279%
Adrian SmithRNE03$1,219,588$935,84077%
G K ButterfieldDNC01$761,051$570,34875%
Terri A SewellDAL07$1,782,862$1,327,12874%
Dennis RossRFL15$741,889$550,12274%
Pat TiberiROH12$1,623,855$1,196,31974%
Ron KindDWI03$2,310,672$1,678,79373%
Blaine LuetkemeyerRMO03$2,327,359$1,685,22872%
John Lee RatcliffeRTX04$748,187$540,43072%
Bill FloresRTX17$1,327,333$952,77672%
Sam GravesRMO06$1,695,131$1,216,02072%
James E ClyburnDSC06$1,989,607$1,426,10872%
Trey HollingsworthRIN09$1,471,589$1,046,70571%
Patrick MeehanRPA05$986,052$693,90070%
Richard E NealDMA01$3,554,755$2,499,29170%
Kenny MarchantRTX24$1,238,182$857,63469%
Gregory W MeeksDNY05$1,027,879$710,60069%
Doris O MatsuiDCA06$1,066,880$720,30368%
Collin PetersonDMN07$1,425,449$960,01367%
Robert E LattaROH05$1,573,523$1,057,20867%
Austin ScottRGA08$818,129$548,50067%
Larry BucshonRIN08$967,433$639,70666%
Robert B AderholtRAL04$1,546,643$1,018,64366%
Bradley ByrneRAL01$1,460,041$959,10066%
Jason SmithRMO08$1,980,377$1,284,92265%
Linda SanchezDCA38$1,704,758$1,099,78865%
Juan VargasDCA51$879,037$565,40064%
Barry LoudermilkRGA11$845,520$542,74564%
Kurt SchraderDOR05$2,062,382$1,322,95364%
Sanford BishopDGA02$1,119,338$711,27064%
Steven PalazzoRMS04$766,678$481,29863%
Michael BurgessRTX26$1,672,804$1,045,52963%
Henry CuellarDTX28$1,656,421$1,030,37762%
Mike SimpsonRID02$1,107,701$687,86662%
John B LarsonDCT01$1,604,275$988,49362%
Joyce BeattyDOH03$1,087,553$665,18861%
Markwayne MullinROK02$1,572,714$958,59361%
Doug CollinsRGA09$1,408,230$845,16960%
William L Clay Jr.DMO01$663,479$397,50060%
Peter WelchDVT01$861,403$510,85059%
Billy LongRMO07$1,526,393$902,64259%
Buddy CarterRGA01$1,802,887$1,066,13659%
Pete OlsonRTX22$1,532,998$903,90559%
Kevin BradyRTX08$5,213,137$3,071,73759%
Charlie DentRPA07$516,762$302,91059%
Mike KellyRPA16$2,566,019$1,500,70858%
Frank Pallone Jr.DNJ06$2,802,832$1,637,06658%

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