This article was originally published by Vanity Fair.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked why she is still supporting Representative Henry Cuellar, the conservative Texas Democrat whose house and campaign office were recently raided by the FBI, for reelection, and she said she is. Then, in a mind-boggling moment during Thursday’s press conference, Pelosi took the time to also remind everyone that in addition to the whole FBI thing that’s cast a shadow over Cuellar’s ethical standards, he’s also the lone antiabortion Democrat left in the House—a position one would think would leave a disqualifying black mark on a Democrat’s political résumé given the Supreme Court looks poised to overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming weeks.
But no, Pelosi, whose party and caucus sought to use abortion rights to motivate Americans to go to the polls this past week, said she’s backing him even though he’s anti-choice.
“I’m supporting Henry Cuellar, he’s a valued member of our caucus. The FBI has said he’s not under investigation,” Pelosi said first, before quipping, “I thought that you were going to take it to choice or something.”
“He is not pro-choice but we didn’t need him; we passed the bill with what we had,” Pelosi said. Cuellar was the lone Democrat to vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act when it passed the House last year. It failed this past week in the Senate in a vote of 49 to 51.
As a general rule, Democratic leadership throws its lot in with incumbents. (One mustn’t forget the controversial Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee policy to not only back incumbents, but “blacklist” vendors and strategists who worked with their challengers.) And this is also not the first time that Pelosi and company backed an anti-choice Democratic incumbent either. The Democratic establishment backed an anti-choice congressman Daniel Lipinski in the primary for Illinois’s 3rd congressional district against a pro-choice woman challenger, Marie Newman, in the 2020 election cycle. (Newman won the race.)
In defending Cuellar, Pelosi argued that House Democrats have come a long way on abortion rights in the last two decades, perhaps enough so that an antiabortion Democrat here or there doesn’t matter to her as much. “When President Obama was president, the House Democratic caucus, we didn’t have 218 pro-choice votes,” she said Thursday, noting that abortion was in part a huge hurdle when passing the Affordable Care Act, which Cuellar ultimately voted for.
But now, when women in dozens of states across the country are bracing for their reproductive rights to be stripped in draconian ways, Pelosi’s decision to stand by Cuellar is coming under renewed scrutiny. Not to mention, that Democrats are running in what is anticipated to be a Republican-favored midterm cycle. Many Democrats have argued that the fight over women’s reproductive rights will galvanize the base. That said, rank and file Democrats are not simply falling in line. Cuellar’s challenger and former intern Jessica Cisneros does boast the support of a number of high-profile progressives including, but not limited to, senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley; and former Texas state senator Wendy Davis (who notably rose to prominence nationally for her 13-hour filibuster to block abortion restrictions in Texas). Cisneros fell short of beating Cuellar in the last primary cycle by single digits. But perhaps, as was the case for Newman, she will prove victorious the second time around in the May 24 runoff.