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Navy veteran Jay Furman will face indicted U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas congressional race

Navy veteran Jay Furman will face indicted U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in South Texas congressional race
1 month 2 weeks 5 days ago Tuesday, May 28 2024 May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024 9:57 PM May 28, 2024 in News - Local
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar celebrates his victory with his daughter Catherine and wife Imelda Cuellar at an election night party in Laredo on Nov. 8, 2022. He will face Navy veteran Jay Furman in the 2024 election. Credit: Jessica Rodriguez for The Texas Tribune

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SAN ANTONIO — Navy veteran Jay Furman won the Republican primary runoff Tuesday to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar for the 28th Congressional District, beating rancher Lazaro Garza.

Furman led Garca with more than 65% of votes, the Associated Press projected.

The previously sleepy Republican primary attracted considerable attention after Cuellar was indicted earlier this month on charges of bribery, money laundering and working on behalf of the Azerbaijani government. Republicans had not been deeply invested in the race, having been burned in the 2022 election where Cuellar bested their efforts and triumphed to a ninth term representing a district that covers a large swath of South Texas from parts of San Antonio to Laredo.

Furman and Garza entered the race as cultural conservatives focused on hardening the southern border. Both pounced on Cuellar’s indictment. In a video posted online the day the indictment was unsealed, Furman said Cuellar was part of a Washington establishment that was “trading us for their deep pockets and their forever policies that are against the values of South Texas.”

"Exciting that maybe one of them will get their due," he said.

Garza said on Facebook that day: "There is no place for corruption in Congress!"

Jay Furman.

Furman came ahead in the four-way Republican primary last March, with just under 45% of the vote. Garza had 27%. Candidates need at least 50% to avoid a runoff.

Furman still faces a steep challenge in going after Cuellar. Neither Furman nor Garza raised funds typically needed for a competitive run for Congress. Furman reported raising over $195,000 ahead of the runoff, including over $150,000 in loans from his personal funds. Garza raised over $295,000, but $200,000 was in external loans.

Both candidates already spent most of their money ahead of the runoff. Garza had about $3,100 in the bank before the runoff, while Furman had only about $2,000. Furman admitted in a recent interview that it was a “very grassroots campaign.”

In a text message Tuesday night, Cuellar commended Garza's efforts as a "good campaign" and said he was looking forward to talking with Furman "about the issues that are important to my district like strong border security, transportation funding, trade and energy, education, and healthcare." When asked if he was still confident about winning in the general election, Cuellar responded: "Yes!"

The National Republican Congressional Committee has also not made significant moves to support the Republican candidates, focusing instead their attention on the nearby 15th and 34th Congressional Districts.

The 15th District is represented by Republican Rep. Monica De La Cruz, whom Democrats named their top target to flip this cycle. Republicans meanwhile named Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez in the 34th District their biggest goal this cycle with former Rep. Mayra Flores challenging Gonzalez. Flores and De La Cruz have raised closer to $3 million each in their campaigns.

Cuellar raised over $1.9 million this cycle, with over $415,000 in the bank ahead of the runoff (he didn’t have a Democratic challenger this year).

But Cuellar’s luck could change as his case progresses. He has already spent over half of his campaign funds on legal expenses, going back to January of 2023, according to FEC filings. His trial, which begins in June in Houston, could keep him from the campaign trail. He has already missed votes in Washington and is barred from traveling outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S. district courts for southern and western Texas or Washington for congressional business.

“The leadership is not fit for office,” Furman said in an interview. “A lot of people are very interested in this race now. It’s now apparent to everybody what we saw.”

Cuellar maintains his innocence.

“Everything I have done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas,” Cuellar said in a statement after the indictment was unsealed earlier this month. “I’ve devoted my life’s work to creating jobs here, improving education, and securing our border.”

He continued: “Let me be clear, I’m running for re-election and will win this November.”

He has proven it possible before.

Cuellar managed to fend off a left-wing challenge in the 2020 and 2022 Democratic primaries from immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros, even after the FBI searched his home in a raid that received nation-wide media attention just two months before the 2022 Democratic primary. The purpose of the raid was not public at the time, but it later became clear it was connected to his alleged work on behalf of Azerbaijan. Cuellar beat Cisneros by less than a single percentage point.

Cuellar then beat Republicans in their multi-million dollar effort to take the seat that year. Cassy Garcia, a former district director for Sen. Ted Cruz, lost the race by over 13 percentage points, despite high hopes from her party.

Republicans included Garcia in their national “Young Guns” program for candidates they were optimistic about beating Democratic incumbents that cycle. The party was eager to flip three majority-Hispanic South Texas districts to signal a broader appeal to Latino voters across the country. Republicans hammered Cuellar over the FBI search, casting him as corrupt.

The large margin was enough to stop Republicans from mounting another challenge going into this year. Garcia did not run again this year, rejoining Cruz’s staff in February. Cisneros also declined to run after House Democratic leadership endorsed Cuellar. She has declined to comment on Cuellar’s indictment.

Cuellar’s strong base in Laredo comes from decades of power consolidation and efforts to bring federal money back to the city. Born into a poor family of immigrants, Cuellar and his siblings have become power brokers in Laredo. His brother, Martin, is Webb County sheriff, and his sister, Rosie, is currently running to represent the Uvalde-based state House District 80. Rosie Cuellar made it into a runoff in the Democratic primary against Cecilia Castellano.

Republicans could still change their strategy and invest again in the 28th District as Cuellar’s case progresses. The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly called on Cuellar’s colleagues to urge him to resign. No Texans in Congress from either party so far has done so. The NRCC has also connected with Furman since the indictment, Furman said.

But the NRCC will have to focus its resources where it sees the most chance of success. It has lagged behind its Democratic counterpart in fundraising and is already laser focused on the other two South Texas races — including the 34th District, which President Joe Biden would have won by over 15 points.

The group has so far spent much of its energy trying to use Cuellar’s indictment to harm Gonzalez. Both are often ideologically grouped together, but Gonzalez faces no accusations of wrongdoing. Gonzalez dismissed the tactic as “stupid” and “nonsense.”

House Democrats are standing by Cuellar, saying he has the right to a trial and presumption of innocence like any other American. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said he would not rescind his endorsement of Cuellar.

Furman said he was driven to run after attempting to “give a voice to the illegality” of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in the military. He was further galvanized after seeing the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, which he likened to conflict zones he’d seen serving throughout Africa in the Navy.

Furman decried what he called the “status quo party” — Republicans who voted with Democrats on bills such as government funding or foreign aid. He is a vocal backer of YouTuber Brandon Herrera, a right-wing challenger to centrist Republican Rep. Tony Gonzales, whom Furman derided as “phony Tony.”

“There is no credible conservative opposition [to] the status quo party,” Furman said.

That kind of language put him at odds with the Washington Republicans equipped to fund him to a more competitive run. Republican leadership including House Speaker Mike Johnson supports Gonzales and worked with Democrats to pass government funding and foreign aid legislation.

Garza told The Laredo Morning Times he saw the situation at the border as “an invasion” and ran to “advocate for the rights of ranchers throughout the United States, with an emphasis on security along our southern border.” He also saw supporting higher education opportunities as a major motivator to run for office. Garza did not respond to requests for an interview.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/25/texas-runoff-results-cd-28-henry-cuellar-jay-indictment/.

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