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Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2006 / 15 Shevat 5766

John H. Fund

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Regarding Henry: A moderate Texas Democrat faces a primary challenge from the left | National Democratic leaders claim they've learned from John Kerry's mistakes in 2004 and are aggressively trying to run more-moderate candidates who can connect with Americans in pro-Bush states. That's why party leaders are backing Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth for an Illinois House seat in a GOP-leaning district and pro-life state treasurer Bob Casey for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

But a real test for the party's new approach will come in Texas next month. Rep. Henry Cuellar is running as an unabashed moderate against the former congressman he challenged and narrowly beat in a primary two years ago: Ciro Rodriguez, a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Liberals are gunning for Mr. Cuellar and trying to read him out of the party because he believes in working across party lines with Republicans.

Mr. Cuellar told me that he is proud to be a Democrat and will always remain one, but that he always puts the interests of his two-thirds Hispanic district before that of any party. He notes that his willingness to reach across the aisle has paid off. He has won passage of six amendments to bills in his first year in Congress, more than any other freshman. They include funding for facilities in his district to combat drug trafficking and to improve border coordination with Mexico.

He also notes that his district is no "lockstep liberal" seat. In fact, President Bush defeated John Kerry by 53% to 47% in the district, which stretches from south San Antonio down to the bustling border town of Laredo, which is both a major hub of cross-border commerce and the largest inland port in the U.S.

Laredo is where Mr. Cuellar was born, the eldest of eight children of migrant workers. He worked his way through college and law school, got a doctorate in government from the University of Texas, and was elected to the state Legislature. He was known as someone who brought factions together, brokered deals, and avoided ideological pigeonholing. He defeated Mr. Rodriguez by pledging to work hard for the district and not let ideological hobbyhorses dominate his thinking.

One area in which Mr. Cuellar has broken ranks with other Democrats is trade, on which he has often bucked local unions. He was one of only 15 Democrats to side with Republicans in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "Trade is valuable, and Nafta" — the North American Free Trade Agreement — "has been especially important in improving my local economy," he told me.

Mr. Cuellar also parted company with party liberals by supporting bankruptcy reform and limits on class-action lawsuits, many of which prove meritless. Such pro-business votes have earned him the endorsement of the free-market Club for Growth as well as the Business-Industrial Political Action Committee. "He is the most pro-growth Democrat in the House today," says Pat Toomey, a Republican former congressman who heads the Club for Growth.

But endorsements such as that have infuriated liberal bloggers such as the influential Daily Kos, which called him "a Republican in sheep's clothing." For his part, Mr. Rodriguez has pounded away on his theme that "Cuellar has sold out the people of this district" by working with Republicans. A third candidate, teacher Victor Morales, echoes those charges but has raised little money.

The race heated up this month after President Bush was seen hugging Rep. Cuellar before the State of the Union Address. Photos of the two men together quickly proliferated through the Internet and brought in $70,000 in donations from outraged Democrats for the Rodriguez campaign. "He has pissed off every single Democrat [in Washington]," Mr. Rodriguez told NBC News. Indeed, at least 10 of Mr. Cuellar's fellow Democrats in Congress have contributed to Mr. Rodriguez, while not one has given money to Mr. Cuellar.

Mr. Cuellar shrugs off his colleagues' donations to his opponents. He explains that he and Mr. Bush are old friends, and says he continues to respect the president. He says Mr. Bush's cooperative and bipartisan approach toward Democrats during his years in Texas was largely absent during his first term as president, but he saw hints of a new openness in the State of the Union speech that he thinks Democrats would be foolish to dismiss. "The way to get things done is to realize there are times for legislating and times for campaigning, " he told me. "You can't always be in hand-to-hand political combat."

The primary race between Mr. Cuellar and his opponents comes down to one number: 50% plus one. If Mr. Cuellar reaches that number in the March 7 primary he will win the Democratic nomination outright. He would then coast to victory in the fall, since there is no GOP candidate in the district. But if Mr. Rodriguez forces him Mr. Cuellar into a runoff, the incumbent would be in danger because the party activists typically dominate such races, which draw little turnout. Right now, private polls show Mr. Cuellar hovering just over the 50% mark.

Should he lose, despite an effective first term, it will send a signal that Democrats aren't really interested in having a truly diverse party ideologically — and that dissidents who go their own way do so at the peril of being defeated in primaries. Ask Marty Martinez, a Democrat who represented East Los Angeles in Congress for 18 years until the unions ganged up on him and defeated him with their own candidate in 2000. "I wouldn't toe the line 100% on their issues, " Mr. Martinez told me at the time. "Democrats say they are tolerant, but when it comes to dissent, they have a different tune."

Next month Mr. Cuellar will see if he has any better luck getting his party to understand that it can regain majority status only if it makes room for moderates.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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©2001, John H. Fund