By Abby Livingston, The Texas Tribune

Cuellar, who has served in the U.S. House since 2005, has long had a reputation as one of the chamber’s most conservative Democrats. But Democratic leaders are hopeful MJ Hegar’s bid against Carter gains traction

WASHINGTON – A new report has left many Democratic House insiders perplexed and frustrated with one of the most powerful Texas Democrats in Congress: U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.

Politico reported Tuesday that Cuellar had”invited supporters to a breakfast fundraiser” Tuesday morning for U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. The invitation was “sent from a Cuellar political staffer,” according to the report.

“Although I was not a host of the event, I was honored to attend as I typically do for colleagues who visit my district,” Cuellar said in a statement. “Judge Carter is a dear friend and trusted colleague with whom I work on Appropriations. He is knowledgeable and supportive of issues important to South Texas. In today’s climate, more than ever, friendship is more powerful than partisanship.”

Cuellar, who has served in the U.S. House since 2005, has long had a reputation as one of the chamber’s most conservative Democrats. But in both party’s caucuses, actively helping a member of the other party is a highly frowned upon practice.

Carter faces a spirited challenge against veteran MJ Hegar, one of the standout recruits of Democratic House candidates this cycle. This is a deeply Republican district, but Carter has lagged far behind Hegar in fundraising.

Her path to victory involves leveraging her fundraising advantage into a fall television ad blitz against Carter. Even if she does not win this race, she could force Republicans to drag money away from other incumbents in order to save Carter.

All of which to say is that Cuellar’s fundraising support for Carter runs counter to the larger Democratic strategy around competing in the 31st District and the larger effort to take back control of the U.S. House. The news left a number of Cuellar’s Democratic colleagues privately scratching their heads Tuesday.

This is not the first time Cuellar has taken an unorthodox tack. He’s known as one of the most conservative Democrats in the U.S. House and was a longtime ally of former President George W. Bush. In 2001, then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed Cuellar Texas Secretary of State.

At the same time, Cuellar holds one of the most difficult assignments to land in his chamber: He is the lone Texas Democrat serving on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

When pressed on about whether he is a pariah in his own caucus during a Texas Tribune interview in 2014, Cuellar stressed a need for bipartisanship and touted his fundraising for the Democratic cause.

Like all other U.S. House members, Cuellar’s party leadership assigns him a set amount of money to raise for their campaign arm each cycle. The House GOP campaign arm has a similar practice. The committees then direct the money for various purposes, but the main one is television advertising in competitive House races around the country.

In 2017, the the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee assigned Cuellar dues that amounted to $200,000. According to records obtained by the Tribune, Cuellar had paid $400,000 to the committee this cycle as of July. Those dues will go to a massive pot of DCCC money that will, in part, fund ads to support Democratic House candidates – including possibly Hegar if she gains traction in the run up to Election Day.

In that 2014 interview, Cuellar said that he did not view any conflict in his supporting his party financially while being at odds with some of its positions.

“What’s interesting is, that…sometimes even members of my own party yell the loudest are not the ones that actually do the work for the party,” he told the Tribune. “If you look at it, I’ll say this, I’m the first Democrat that pays my dues…I’m always the first one. I pay more than anybody. I pay more than any Democrat congressional member in the state of Texas for the last couple of years.”

Cuellar dismissed any talk about switching parties at the time, insisting “I am a Democrat, and I will die as a Democrat.”

When asked to comment Tuesday on Cuellar’s support for her opponent, Hegar’s campaign declined to mention the Democratic congressman by name.

“It is no surprise that John Carter continues to put his donors and powerful special interests ahead of the people in the district he is supposed to represent,” the campaign said in a statement.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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