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A House Democrat's anti-abortion stance could cost him a seat

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are very few Democratic lawmakers left who oppose abortion rights, and a key Texas primary on Tuesday could oust one more. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has this report.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The May 24 runoff between Democratic Representative Henry Cuellar and immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros was always going to be a fight. In their initial matchup in March, he edged her out by just over two percentage points, or roughly a thousand votes. And then the Supreme Court leak happened. Now Cisneros is trying to make sure abortion is central to this race. Here she was recently on NBC's "Meet The Press."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

JESSICA CISNEROS: There's so many key issues where she's always siding with Republicans, and he could become the Joe Manchin of the House. We don't want Henry Cuellar to be the deciding vote on the future of our fundamental freedoms and rights in this country. We just can't risk that.

KURTZLEBEN: Cisneros is endorsed by progressives like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But this district moved slightly toward Trump in 2020, and Cuellar is one of the most conservative House Democrats. Moreover, he was the only House Democrat last year who voted against a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade. Cuellar has said his faith leads him to oppose abortion but that it should be allowed in cases like incest, rape and protecting a pregnant person's life. Speaking to NPR before the week, he downplayed abortion's importance in the primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HENRY CUELLAR: I don't run on, you know, I'm pro-life. You never heard me say that. When I talk to voters, you know, except for when I'm at church and I'll have some people - thank you for your vote on abortion. But I don't go running on abortion.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, however, it's an unavoidable topic. But when Texas Public Radio asked Cuellar after the leak about Cisneros's attacks on his abortion stance, Cuellar changed the subject.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUELLAR: There's a lot of issues out there, and she needs to spend some time on how she's going to defend the border.

KURTZLEBEN: Lawmakers and voters of both parties have steadily fallen in line on abortion in recent decades. The group Democrats for Life of America, which opposes abortion rights, labeled 125 House Democrats pro-life as of the late 1970s. Today, Cuellar is the only one they consider pro-life. And that shift is reflected in the Democratic electorate. Today, only around 1 in 10 Democrats believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, down from 1 in 4 in the mid-'70s, according to Gallup. Meanwhile, around half believe it should be legal in any circumstance, up from 1 in 5. Former Illinois Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski unintentionally illustrated the rarity of Dems opposed to abortion rights at the March for Life this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN LIPINSKI: And we got Democrats for Life of America out here, wherever you're at in this big crowd. Must be muffled in the big crowd here.

KURTZLEBEN: Over time, the two parties have sorted themselves apart on many, many issues, but abortion has played an outsized role in that sorting, says Ziad Munson, a professor of sociology at Lehigh University.

ZIAD MUNSON: I think we got to this point because of very specific political strategies by political entrepreneurs starting in the late 1980s and going into the 1990s to move abortion to the center of the Republican Party. And I think that the political strategy that lay behind that was to fracture the Democratic coalition.

KURTZLEBEN: Subsequently, Munson added, Democrats likewise more fully embraced abortion rights. Over time, anti-abortion rights Democrats have either been voted out of office or changed their views. Joe Biden in 1982 supported a law that would have allowed individual states to overturn Roe v. Wade, but by his 2020 presidential run, he had changed his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A woman does have a right to choose. I would, in fact - if they rule it to be unconstitutional, I will send to the United States Congress - and it will pass, I believe - a bill that - excuse me - legislates Roe v. Wade.

KURTZLEBEN: Voters' abortion views are, of course, driven by real moral convictions. But layered in with those convictions, there are undeniable political forces nudging people around. And one major political force supporting abortion rights is Emily's List. Christina Reynolds is its vice president of communications.

CHRISTINA REYNOLDS: Certainly we would like to think that we are a part of it. We would argue it is an important part - you know, it should be an important part of being a Democrat, and hopefully of being in elected office, that you support everyone's freedom to decide, to make these choices themselves and not have government make them for us.

KURTZLEBEN: And groups like Emily's List are working to vote Cuellar out. That outside support worries Eddie Lucio, a retiring Texas Democratic state senator who sponsored SB 8, the restrictive law that bans abortion after about six weeks. He backs Cuellar.

EDDIE LUCIO: I really respect him standing his ground on this. The young lady running against him - she's the recipient of obviously money from throughout the United States to try to knock off the last pro-life Democrat in the Congress.

KURTZLEBEN: Cuellar, for his part, has held this seat since 2005, and he has the backing of the most powerful House Democrats, which he bragged about at a recent rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUELLAR: Look; Pelosi has endorsed me. Steny has endorsed me. Clyburn has endorsed me. The head of the Black Caucus has endorsed me. The head of the Hispanic Caucus has endorsed me. And many other leaders have endorsed me.

KRISTEN DAY: They recognize the importance of this race.

KURTZLEBEN: Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, says that Cuellar's establishment support is simply about electability.

DAY: And this is what has been happening and this is why we have fewer pro-life Democrats in Congress, is we have these radical progressive candidates come in.

KURTZLEBEN: Again, nationally, Democrats have grown more in favor of abortion rights. But House elections are about local opinions, and Cuellar thinks his moderation helps him in a district Republicans are targeting.

CUELLAR: If you look at the urban Democrats compared to the rural Democrats - very, very, very different. I mean, if you talk about the Second Amendment, you start talking about hunting - very different positions in south Texas than if you go to my San Antonio area.

KURTZLEBEN: And while Democrats are the party of abortion rights, Lehigh University's Munson says parties prioritize winning over issues.

MUNSON: The political system that we have, particularly the two-party system, is designed around finding, promoting and getting politicians elected who represent the party, right? Parties are a way - like, their primary purpose is to win elections.

KURTZLEBEN: Democrats on May 24 will find out whether their South Texas voters still support someone who opposes abortion rights. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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