One of Congress’ most conservative Democrats will face a primary challenge in 2020 from progressives who say he’s too far to the right to be part of the Democratic Party. But that hasn’t stopped him from accepting campaign donations from the corporation headed by one of the Republican Party’s biggest benefactors.
The PAC of Koch Industries, a huge oil, chemicals, and paper product conglomerate led by centibillionaire Charles Koch, gave $1,000 to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas on April 30, according to a new campaign finance report published today by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
KochPAC has consistently donated to Cuellar since the 2004 election; in the 2018 cycle, the PAC donated $7,500 to his campaign. In 2008, in addition to giving thousands of dollars to Cuellar’s campaign, KochPAC gave $5,000 to his leadership PAC, Texas First PAC. KochPAC has contributed $39,000 to Cuellar’s election campaigns since its first donation in 2004, according to records from the FEC.
Texas is the biggest oil-producing state in the union, and Cuellar has benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of campaign donations from PACs and individuals in the industry over his nearly 20-year career. In the 2018 election cycle alone, Cuellar’s campaign took in more than $140,000 from oil and gas PACs.
Cuellar, dubbed “Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat,” has often voted to help the industry. “I strongly support domestic energy and oil production as a way to shore up our nation’s energy and economic independence,” states Cuellar on his website. In 2013 he partnered with Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn to create the congressional Shale Caucus, which he has chaired. He is also a member of the Congressional Oil and Gas Caucus, which “seeks to explain the positives of oil and gas development.” He has a lifetime score of 42% from the League of Conservation Voters.
The political network of centibillionaire Charles Koch is so large and powerful that it rivals the Republican Party. Funded by right-wing billionaires like Koch, the network coordinates political spending on elections and issues with a focus on slashing taxes and cutting regulations.
KochPAC rarely donates to Democrats. But Cuellar’s conservative voting record stands out: He’s one of only three House Democrats who votes with President Donald Trump more than half of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight (54%). And he helped fundraise for a Republican member of Congress who faced a Democratic challenger last year.
“Cuellar is a Koch-style Democrat: in the pocket of big corporations and willing to do anything to please them,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, told Sludge. “At a time when women are leading the fight against Trump it’s embarrassing the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] is defending a man who fired a woman for being pregnant.”
Cuellar’s office did not immediately respond to Sludge’s request for comment.
Progressive groups including Justice Democrats and Data for Progress are targeting Cuellar in 2020 and plan to recruit a primary challenger who supports the Green New Deal and opposes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won Cuellar’s district, the 28th, by 20 percentage points in 2016, indicating the district’s voters are more liberal than its U.S. representative. Cook Political Report rated the district as D+9.
Follow The Money
Sign up to get our next investigations over email:
The DCCC, however, is sticking with all incumbent Democrats, including Cuellar and another controversial Democratic, anti-abortion Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who is facing a challenge from progressive Marie Newman. Earlier this year, the committee codified a policy barring any DCCC candidates from working with political consulting firms that contract with Democratic primary challengers.
Cuellar accepts money from other industries that are generally unsavory among Democrats, including the private prison industry. The representative was the House’s second-biggest recipient of donations from the GEO Group PAC and its employees in 2018 ($32,400). Asked about his private prison donations last year by this reporter, Cuellar responded with comments that sounded more like a Republican’s than a Democrat’s.
“I have never allowed a contribution of any size to influence my opinion, period,” he said. “The fact is that GEO is one of the largest employers in my district and plays an important role in maintaining our public safety. Because ICE does not own detention centers, they rely upon private contracted facilities to accommodate the large population of adult criminal aliens. Without them, rapists, murderers, and other offenders would not be incarcerated and instead present a clear threat to our communities.”
Among Cuellar’s other demerits for progressives are his anti-abortion record—NARAL Pro-Choice America gave him a 15% score on choice issues in 2018—and his current push to get his Democratic colleagues on board with Trump’s reimagined NAFTA.
Do you value our independent journalism?
Every day, the reporters at Sludge are relentlessly following the money to reveal the hidden networks and conflicts of interest that drive political corruption. We are 100% ad-free and reader supported, so we’re counting on our readers to help us continue calling out powerful politicians and lobbyists. If you appreciate the work we do, please consider becoming a member for $5 a month to support our investigative journalism. We can’t do this work without your support.