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Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar is one Democrat who opposes abortion rights

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Democrats, nationally, are vowing to fight for abortion rights after last month's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But there is one Democrat in a Texas district who opposes abortion rights - Henry Cuellar. He eked out a win after a brutal primary fight with a pro-abortion rights candidate in June. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more from this district.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: On a recent hot Texas evening, Azucena Garcia Palacios is out watering her lawn in front of her Laredo home. The 77-year-old retired teacher and grandmother canvasses door to door for Democrats. The people who answered her knock were often like-minded.

AZUCENA GARCIA PALACIOS: In my experience, I would say more Democrats than Republicans.

GRISALES: Palacios switches from English to Spanish as she reflects on her favored candidate in the recent Democratic primary - progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros ran for Congress as a supporter of abortion rights in a state that has recently imposed strict limits. Palacios says there are women who do not want to be mothers, and she respects that.

PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: Cisneros lost her primary fight to long-time incumbent Henry Cuellar, the last anti-abortion rights Democrat in the U.S. House, by less than 300 votes. Cuellar got national attention in January when the FBI searched his home and office, but he later said he was not the target of a criminal probe. Now he's looking at a new battle to keep the district in Democrats' hands this November.

JON TAYLOR: It tends to be more conservative than people realize.

GRISALES: That's politics professor Jon Taylor at The University of Texas in San Antonio. Taylor says Cuellar's Texas Congressional District 28 is oddly drawn and gerrymandered, stretching from the conservative pockets of Laredo, two hours north to more liberal sections near San Antonio. As a result, Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, threw their support behind Cuellar, even as his abortion stance goes against the party's platform.

TAYLOR: That pro-life angle doesn't hurt when you're talking to, essentially, middle-class and working-class Latino voters.

GRISALES: Taylor says recent Texas laws to end abortion access has energized conservatives. One of those Cuellar voters is retired firefighter Jose Aguirre. He's visiting Jarvis Plaza park near Laredo's bus depot to feed the homeless on a recent afternoon.

JOSE AGUIRRE: Well, I'm pro-life myself. I'm a Christian. I believe life starts at conception.

GRISALES: Aguirre, a supporter of former President Trump, is not ruling out plans to vote for Republicans in the midterms, but, for now, lauds Cuellar as a strong candidate.

AGUIRRE: Well, he's been here for a long time, you know? And he's - I think he's, like, what they call a moderate Democrat, you know? Because you have some that are very radical.

GRISALES: Cuellar, who gives limited interviews with the media, declined to comment through his office. Professor Taylor says a big challenge in the district is low voter turnout, which can top out at less than 20% in some elections.

TAYLOR: They're usually abysmal.

GRISALES: At an apartment northeast of San Antonio, a group of girlfriends are getting together for hot dogs on a Friday night. They're angry about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and it's personal.

SOFIA LUQUE: I almost lost my sister.

GRISALES: That's makeup artist Sofia Luque, who says her sister had to have an emergency abortion in order to stay alive. But despite her anger, Luque, her partner Asia Kopp and their friend Veronica Lawrence all agree they probably will not vote any time soon.

VERONICA LAWRENCE: Honestly, I've never had any faith in politics, so I stay out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm the same way.

GRISALES: Back in more conservative Laredo, Roxy Aguero is at a park on the north side with her two young children. She's not sure she made the right choice voting for Cuellar in the Democratic primary.

ROXY AGUERO: To be honest, like, I feel like I don't have the time to, like, read up on people or nothing or what's going on.

GRISALES: Cisneros had an aggressive outreach strategy, but it did not work for Aguero.

AGUERO: Oh, my God. I felt like that lady would call me more than once, like, a day.

GRISALES: She illustrates how tough it was for Cisneros to break through with voters, even someone who supports abortion rights. And now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, she's worried about voting for Cuellar come November.

AGUERO: I feel like we should do whatever we need to do with our bodies, like, as a woman. Like, they shouldn't be able to just put a law that says no abortions. I mean, who are they?

GRISALES: About a mile east, at the home of Azucena Palacios, she says in her native Spanish she's past the age of having kids, but she's worried about abortion rights, too.

PALACIOS: The Roe v. Wade (speaking Spanish).

GRISALES: Palacios says since she's a loyal Democrat, she'll reluctantly vote for Cuellar in November. But it's unclear if voters like Palacios will be enough to keep the district in Democrats' hands as Republicans increasingly see the Texas border region as an opportunity to expand their reach.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Laredo, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR'S "NAOKI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.