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Democrats Are Using a Shady Voting Rights Group to Smear an AOC-Backed Progressive in Texas

When 26-year-old attorney Jessica Cisneros decided to take on longtime incumbent Congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas, she knew she’d get hit — hard. What she didn’t know is that she’d get smeared by a shady voting rights group with backing from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. On Monday, Cisneros posted a picture on Twitter showing…

Democrats Are Using a Shady Voting Rights Group to Smear an AOC-Backed Progressive in Texas

When 26-year-old attorney Jessica Cisneros decided to take on longtime incumbent Congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas, she knew she’d get hit — hard.

What she didn’t know is that she’d get smeared by a shady voting rights group with backing from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

On Monday, Cisneros posted a picture on Twitter showing a mailer accusing her of being an “NYC candidate” who’s “bringing New York flavor to Texas,” with a picture of a bagel and a slice of pizza. Cisneros was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and says she doesn’t even like bagels. But she was endorsed as part of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Courage to Change slate and her challenge, which will be decided March 3, has been likened to Ocasio-Cortez’s unseating of former Rep. Joe Crowley in 2018.

Cisneros supports a full slate of left-wing priorities, such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and “creating a humane border and immigration policy.” Cuellar, on the other hand, is one of the most conservative members of the House, siding with the GOP on right-to-work and other labor issues, the Trump administration’s assassination of a top Iranian general, and immigration. He’s also carried an ‘A” rating from the National Rifle Association for most of his career, and he took $6,950 from the NRA Political Victory Fund in the 2018 cycle.

From the start, Cisneros knew Cuellar’s seat would be heavily defended by entrenched interests in the Democratic Party, but what’s strange is how the mailer came to be.

The ‘Voter Protection Project’

The group that paid for it is called the Voter Protection Project, per a photo of the mailer reviewed by VICE News. On February 7, the group had an expenditure of $71,947.44 in direct mail attacking Cisneros, as well as a direct mail buy of $145,664.06 supporting Cuellar, according to FEC records.

On February 18, they made another $32,500 expenditure for digital advertising, bringing their total spending in the race so far to $250,138.50.

READ: This 26-year-old is poised to oust an anti-abortion, pro-gun Democrat

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The initial direct mail buy came just two days after the influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC contributed $250,000 to the group.

“BOLD is supportive of CHC Member Congressman Henry Cuellar,” BOLD PAC spokeswoman Jazmin Vargas said in a statement to VICE News. “As the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, our mission is to advance leadership diversity in Congress and ensure the Latino community has a voice in the People’s House.”

“We’re grateful for all of the support we’ve received.”

Cuellar’s campaign was more blunt. Though campaign manager Colin Strother said he’d never heard of the group, he told VICE News: “We’re grateful for all of the support we’ve received.”

Getting involved in Democratic primary battles between two candidates who support voting rights is not what the Voter Protection Project was set up to ostensibly do.

In 2018, Democrat Andrew Janz mounted a long-shot bid to unseat GOP Rep. and close Trump ally Devin Nunes in his California House seat. Janz came much closer than expected, losing by a little more than 12,000 votes out of more than 222,000 cast.

Fresh off his defeat, Janz launched the Voter Protection Project as a political action committee to “raise money in support of voter rights across the country,” according to a Fresno Bee story when the PAC was started in January 2019. The group pledges to “fight back against President Trump’s and Republicans’ attacks on our right to vote, by leading the charge to make sure every American has the right to cast a ballot.”

“We want to play a role in expanding voter rights and making sure that all Americans have access to the same voting rights we have in California: same-day registration, convenient early voting, and automatic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Janz told the Bee.

Since its founding, the group has raised nearly $1.1 million, FEC filings show, with 23% of that coming from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ BOLD PAC. But according to filings, the group has spent more money attempting to defeat Cisneros that it has spent on all other Democratic candidates.

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Emails to both the Voter Protection Project and its treasurer, Jay Petterson, were not returned. Janz is currently running for mayor of Fresno but is still listed as a member of the Voter Protection Project’s “team” and a member of its board of directors.

A Janz staffer told VICE News in a Facebook message that they would forward our request to the Voter Protection Project, but thus far, no one has contacted us.

Backing Cuellar

During his congressional career, Cuellar, a leading House moderate backed by the Koch-aligned Americans for Prosperity and Democratic House leadership, has never been particularly outspoken about the issue of voting rights, though last year he — along with every other Democrat — voted for Democrats’ voting and ethics reform bill, as well as another one to restore parts of the Voting Rights Act.

CIsneros said she’s a supporter of expanding voter rights and access. “I strongly support legislation that makes it easier for our communities to participate in the political process,” she told VICE News in a statement. “I support automatic voter registration and making Election Day a federal holiday. We must also establish independent redistricting committees to end the practice of gerrymandering and restore the Voting Rights Act.”

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