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Jessica Cisneros saw a fundraising boost after an FBI raid on U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home

By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

Jessica Cisneros saw a fundraising boost after an FBI raid on U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home” 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.

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Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros benefited from a surge in fundraising in the aftermath of an FBI raid on the Laredo home and office of her primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar.

In the first three months of the year, Cisneros raised nearly three times more than Cuellar. Most of that fundraising took place after the Jan. 19 raid. The raid also sent the Democratic primary race in the 28th Congressional District into a completely different trajectory compared to the year before: Cuellar’s fundraising slumped while Cisneros’ exploded.

Cuellar fell 660 votes short of avoiding a runoff during the March primary elections. He and Cisneros will face off in a May 24 runoff.

“The raid hasn’t hurt Cuellar as much as I would have thought, but it surely cost him support he might have otherwise had,” said Matt Angle, a longtime Texas Democratic strategist. “Cuellar spent weeks after the raid twisting in the wind over speculation that he would be indicted. My guess is some people with cold feet held out on him.”

The Department of Justice has yet to explain why the raid on his office took place. Cuellar’s attorney recently told The Texas Tribune that the congressperson is not a target of an investigation.

At first blush, Cisneros’ late fundraising surge mirrors the dynamics of the first time she ran against Cuellar in 2020: Cuellar came into that election year with a sweeping cash-on-hand advantage, with Cisneros playing catchup as the primary came into the national political donor class’ attention. Cisneros then raised about $1 million in the first quarter — about $400,000 more than Cuellar.

This time around, Cisneros raised about $2.4 million in the first quarter, compared to Cuellar’s $900,000.

Fundraising data from the weeks after the January raid and prior to Election Day paint an even more dramatic picture.

In that same window of time in 2020, Cisneros raised about $350,000 and Cuellar $245,000; in other words, Cuellar raised about 70% of Cisneros’ haul. Two years later, Cisneros raised about $700,000 and Cuellar $146,000 — about $100,000 less than what he raised two years prior and a mere 20% of what Cisneros raised in the same period.

It is always noteworthy when a challenger outraises an incumbent, but it is exceptional at this scale.

Early in January, Cisneros’ fundraising was fairly low. She was raising just under $30,000 on a good day, rarely breaking $10,000 on most days.

Campaign donations skyrocketed after the raid on Cuellar’s office took place, climbing to nearly $100,000 on Jan. 23. Money poured in from the 28th District’s population centers — San Antonio and Laredo — but also from individual donors across the country from states like Idaho, Delaware, New York and California.

“Cisneros’ bump in campaign financing is no surprise,” said Rafael Gutierrez Nieto, a longtime Laredo ally of Cuellar. “Her base saw the opportunity to pounce on Cuellar and did just that.”

“It’s also not surprising that the raid had a bigger impact to her fundraising than it did in the ballot boxes,” he added, arguing that redistricting changes to the district had a greater impact on the candidates’ fortunes.

Other Texas Democrats disagree with that notion, pointing to a growing sense of momentum in the last stretch of the campaign, which included support from fundraising juggernauts like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“I think that the momentum in Jessica’s donations match the momentum in people’s belief that she can win,” former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who is a Cisneros donor.

Royce Brooks, an unaligned Democratic operative, agreed. She suggested that after Cisneros came close to pushing Cuellar into a runoff in 2020, the surge in money could be “more of a reflection of Cuellar’s overall perceived vulnerability.”

Cisneros’ latest campaign finance report shows she continued to benefit from the support of unions, environmental organizations, the Latino Victory Fund and Ocasio-Cortez’s leadership PAC.

None of which was good for Cuellar. That unexpected windfall meant Cisneros had the resources to expand her television and digital advertising, field efforts and direct mail solicitations.

But donors have not abandoned Cuellar. He is a prolific fundraiser in his own right who benefits from his post at the House Appropriations Committee.

Despite the fundraising setbacks, Cuellar continued to find financial allies outside the state, many of whom were from Washington, D.C. His most recent campaign finance reports show Cuellar maintained the support of the business community, with backing from corporate PACs in the oil and gas industry, agriculture and financial services.

Moreover, Democratic leaders continued to donate to Cuellar from their own campaign funds and PACs, including the fourth-ranking House Democrat, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a like-minded person on energy issues.

Former members of Congress also donated to Cuellar, both from their personal checkbooks and their own ancient PACs. Former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Waco-area Democrat, and three retired Texas Republicans — former U.S. Reps. Jack Fields Jr., Ted Poe and Lamar Smith — donated to Cuellar.

Both Cuellar and Cisneros reported robust cash-on-hand sums as of March 31. Cuellar had about $1.4 million to spend and Cisneros just over $1 million.

“They both have enough to deliver a deciding vote, so I don’t think the race turns on money,” Angle said. “The primary race will turn on who can mobilize their vote in what will probably be a low-turnout runoff.”

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