At an East Austin fundraiser Wednesday evening, Julián Castro engaged his audience of about 100 in a fantasy of his first day as president in 2021, arriving at the White House with his family to usher out the Trumps.
“It’s a cold January day in our overcoats. I can imagine myself there with my wife, Erica, and our daughter Carina and our son Cristián, ready to say goodbye to Donald Trump and Melania Trump, and all the cameras will be there, the live shot, and the helicopter whirring in the distance, ready to take them off to New York or Mar-a-Lago or somewhere, and right before he leaves, I am going to tell him, `Adios.’”
For Castro, and the Democratic voters he hopes to appeal to, it is a sweet image, ripe with cosmic comeuppance: the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, becoming America's first Hispanic president, replacing the man whose candidacy began with the disparagement of Mexican immigrants.
For the moment, it appears nothing more than a daydream. Castro is well back in the pack of what are now 21 Democratic presidential aspirants, scoring at less than 1 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls.
But, as state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Castro supporter from Laredo, put it Friday, "Tell me who doesn't have a long way to go on the Democratic side."
To be sure, it is early, and Castro, the only Latino in the race, finds himself sitting on two potential advantages.
The first is that if his candidacy should ignite, it has the potential to catch fire with a huge Latino electorate that Democrats are depending on in 2020 to seal Trump’s fate. As far back as 2010, Mark McKinnon, who helped guide George W. Bush to the White House, forecast that “Julián Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States.”
The second is that in recent years, and in the early stages of the campaign, Castro has left those expectations in tatters. Seven years since he delivered the keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, five years since President Barack Obama named him to his Cabinet as housing and urban development secretary, and three years since Hillary Clinton considered him as a running mate in 2016, an Emerson College poll in late April found Castro the favorite of only 4% of Texas Democrats in 2020, behind former Vice President Joe Biden at 23%, fellow Texan and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke at 22%, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont at 17%, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., at 8% and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at 7%.
In presidential nominating contests, there might be no more important or elusive skill than managing expectations, and Castro has managed to lower his to the point where becoming one of the 11 candidates so far to meet both the polling and fundraising marks to assure a place on the stage when the Democratic candidates debate in June and July seemed something of a triumph
"We have 40 weeks left until the Iowa caucuses, and I can tell we are steadily gaining support, the number of people coming to my events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada is steadily growing, our fundraising is accelerating, so I like the direction this campaign is going," Castro said between a higher-dollar fundraiser upstairs at Native Hostel and a low-dollar, give-what-you-can affair downstairs. "I don’t want to be a flash in the pan candidate or somebody who is hot for a month. I want to build a strong foundation so that our campaign keeps growing and gains more and more momentum."
"I look forward to the debates and being on the debate stage," Castro said. "So I know that it sounds a bit odd, but I believe I can benefit from lower expectations that people have of me early, and some candidates out there are seeing the other side of that with high expectations, and it's very hard to maintain those high expectations for the duration.”
Right now, O'Rourke is Exhibit A from that "other side."
Upstaged by Beto
For two years, O'Rourke, emerging from relative obscurity representing El Paso in Congress, upstaged Castro and twin brother Joaquin Castro, a congressman from San Antonio also labeled as an up-and-comer in Democratic politics. O'Rourke nearly defeated U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a 2018 Senate race that Joaquin Castro passed on once O'Rourke got in.
Using his narrow loss as the springboard for a presidential campaign, O'Rourke has overshadowed Julián Castro in fanfare, money raised, media attention and polling numbers. O'Rourke, however, has suffered mightily for having excited what for the moment appear to have been overblown expectations, sinking to 4.4% in the Real Clear Politics average from 9.5% a month earlier.
"Something needs to be said for slowly making your way, the tortoise and the hare," state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who has known the Castros since he was 10, said Wednesday, standing in the rear of the Texas House, where Joaquin served a decade and Julián has the backing of some 15 representatives.
"I would say that there are some candidates who started at the top and now find themselves in the middle, and some candidate who started closer to the bottom and are slowly making their way up," Bernal said. "He’s picking up steam, people are discovering who he is, other candidates have had to take note of him and his policy positions, and I think there’s going to be more of that as candidates get away from speaking in platitudes. He’s giving people real policy positions to chew on."
"He’s not relying on charisma or uniqueness," said Gilberto Ocañas, a veteran of four Democratic presidential campaigns and of Latino politics in Texas and nationally, who has advised Castro through his career and is helping to connect him with Latino elected officials across the country.
"He is staking out his ground as one of the smart guys, one of the smart policy people in this race," said Ocañas, who also advised O'Rourke in his Senate campaign.
“He keeps getting a little more play, keeps getting ahead of the curve, the first to issue an immigration policy, the first to say that (Attorney General William) Barr should resign," said Ocañas. "These are maybe not doubles or triples or home runs, but they are singles, and after a while, you know, José Altuve was hitting singles for a long time and nobody noticed it for years until he was winning batting titles. I just think of him in that way. Underestimated. It’s hard to get a single in the major leagues."
Unlike O'Rourke, who spent $80 million on his Senate race creating both name identification and a donor base, Castro has never run for statewide office. He last won an election, to a third term as mayor of San Antonio, in 2013.
In a February poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, 51% of Texas Democrats had a favorable view of Castro, 6% had an unfavorable view, but 43% didn't have an opinion about him.
"The people who know him and respect him and know what he’s doing, his depth, his quiet strength, all are kind of concerned that he hasn’t had his moment yet," said Ocañas, who thinks Latino voters are also especially prone to doubt the chances of one of their own being elected president.
But, he believes, "once he has his moment, there will be kind of a wave of people excited because one of their own is having his moment."
The wonder twins
"They were always kind of known as the wonder twins," said state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, who has known the Castros since he was working at San Antonio City Hall as a City Council aide at age 19, and the Castros, 23, were summer interns while on break from Harvard Law School.
"They are two of my closest friends," Cortez said Thursday. "To see the situation he’s facing right now, the challenges, is difficult because I know his heart is in the right place, he really believes in the policies that he’s pushing, and it’s unfortunate he’s crowded out due solely to the fact that there’s just too many candidates and there’s only just so much air time."
Cortez said Julián Castro will have an opportunity to distinguish himself in the debates with answers to policy questions.
"But a campaign is not just a policy discussion, it’s partly that, but it’s also style and flash and charisma, something that Beto O’Rourke is probably on a whole different level that many of us wish that we could be on," Cortez said.
Castro was the first, and as of Friday, only Democratic contender to agree to appear at a presidential forum sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials at the Telemundo Center headquarters in Miami on June 21, the week before the first Democratic presidential debate.
"I don’t think that he or anyone in his position has the kind of name recognition with the Latino electorate that one might assume," National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Executive Director Arturo Vargas said Friday.
But Castro had the third highest net favorable rating after Biden and Sanders in an April 20 survey of 606 Latino registered voters conducted by Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, in cooperation with the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund.
"Generally, what we’ve been seeing is the more his name recognition goes up the more his favorability goes up, so his biggest challenge is just breaking through and getting more media attention, " said Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-founder of Latino Decisions.
'Next generation of leadership'
Paul Saldaña, who served as chief of staff for Gus Garcia, the first Hispanic elected mayor of Austin, engaged in some hyperbole Wednesday in introducing Castro in Austin.
"Back in January, when Julián announced in San Antonio that he was going to run for president of the United States, I think that we can all agree that there were 58 million Latinos across the United States that were very proud to hear that he was announcing his bid," said Saldaña. That's how many Hispanics there are in the United States.
According to a study last month by Latino Decisions and the data firm Catalist on behalf of America’s Voice and the Immigration Hub, at 32 million voters, Latinos will, for the first time in history, be the largest racial minority group in the electorate in 2020, with especially critical importance in Arizona, Florida, Nevada and Texas, all states Castro thinks he is best positioned to win.
"He can speak to the real-life experiences, cultural values and day-to-day experiences Latinos face in this particular neighborhood and across the U.S," Saldaña said. "So whether it’s being raised in a single-parent household, or growing up in a low socioeconomic part of town in West San Antonio, Julián, his twin brother Joaquin and the Castro family serve as a testament and inspiration to so many of us but particularly to our young Latinos, that all things are possible."
"A lot of Latino voters can relate to that story if he could just get more folks to know it," said political scientist Melissa Michelson, an expert on Latino politics at Menlo College in California. "If he could get more of the Latino electorate to know about his story and feel that connection with him, I do think they would have more enthusiasm for him, but they are not going to take the time to get to know him until he becomes a more viable candidate."
"It’s the chicken and egg problem," Michelson said. "He needs momentum so he can get people to get to know him, but he needs people to get to know him to get momentum. ... These days it could be one viral campaign ad, one line at the debate that goes viral and, all of a sudden, everyone is taking another look."
State Rep. Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass, where the Castros’ grandmother crossed the border into the U.S. as a young girl, predicted Julián Castro would win the Texas primary on the strength of Hispanic voters.
"The cool thing about his campaign is that I believe it’s going to catch fire at the time it needs to," Nevárez said. "He’s got a ways to climb, but when you look at all the permutations, it’s not insurmountable, and it’s actually real doable and really likely."
He said O'Rourke's weakness with Hispanic voters, at least in the last Democratic primary, would be exposed again.
"If you look at the numbers, Beto did very poorly against a Hispanic who basically did nothing," said Nevárez, referring to Sema Hernandez, who won nearly a quarter of the vote against O'Rourke in the 2018 Democratic Senate primary, mostly, it appeared, on the strength of her Hispanic surname. "So imagine if it's someone who has some cachet and has something to say."
"There’s no better time and this is Julián's time," said Nevárez of his friend's chances of emerging as the candidate to usher Trump out of the Oval Office. "For those of us who have seen him come up, we can appreciate that it’s his time."