Julián Castro launched his longshot bid nearly a year ago in his native San Antonio, hoping to excite a diverse coalition of voters who could power him to the White House.
When he bowed out of the race Thursday, his allies expressed frustration that he was prevented from doing so, casting him as a victim of a primary process that inhibits candidates of color. In interviews, a half-dozen former aides and allies cast the first major Latino candidate in the 2020 race as a casualty of a system that already felled California Sen. Kamala Harris and is keeping New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker from gaining traction.
“How you fare in Iowa and New Hampshire sets the tone for how your campaign continues, and when you have these two states that in no way represent the diversity of the Democratic Party, it makes it very difficult for minority candidates to get momentum,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who noted the impact a campaign’s momentum — or lack thereof — has on fundraising, polling and media coverage.
“If you’ve got people like Booker and Kamala Harris and Castro campaigning in places like Texas, California and South Carolina early on, they’re gonna get momentum,” he argued. “They’re gonna get well known. They’re gonna start raising money. These were high-quality candidates and people who have credentials, who have a history of public service, who are smart, who have ideas and who I think represent where we’re at as a party on the issues important to Americans.”
With some two dozen candidates all vying for the Democratic nomination and party rules that emphasized national and early-state polling and grassroots fundraising to determine who could qualify for the sanctioned debates, Castro’s campaign had an uphill climb, some argued.
Black voters cast a majority of the Democratic primary vote in South Carolina and Hispanics make up a third of the population in Nevada. But the other two early states are overwhelmingly white.
Struggling to keep pace with his rivals in fundraising, Castro lacked the infrastructure and resources of the other Texan in the race, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who ended his campaign in November.
Castro saw his only polling bump when the two Texans clashed over immigration policy at the first debate in June, hitting 4 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post survey days later. In every other approved national and early-state poll released in 2019, however, Castro sat at 2 percent or less.
He cast himself as a voice for marginalized communities, releasing detailed policies on immigration, policing, lead exposure, indigenous communities, people with disabilities and animals while also meeting with inmates and touring a Las Vegas flood tunnel where homeless people seek shelter.
“Some of the people we targeted are people who literally don’t ever vote and could never get included in the political process, people like homeless people,” said a former aide who was laid off when the campaign shuttered its staff in New Hampshire and South Carolina to prioritize Iowa and Nevada.
“It’s tough because in places like Nevada, they rarely poll,” the ex-aide added. “The other issue is polling has always historically underpolled people of color and poor people, people who don’t have landlines. So when you make that system, so when the DNC basically says, ‘Oh, all right, this is how people are gonna qualify,’ you’re setting people up for failure.”
Mayra Macías, executive director of Latino Victory Fund, a progressive PAC that seeks to increase Latino political power and that endorsed Castro in August, said in her experience dealing with media, Castro’s candidacy was often written off. In her estimation, Castro fell victim to an electability argument that rewarded poll leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire with even higher polling and additional media coverage.
Castro never got significant media attention or polled above 2 percent in the first two early states.
“The bulk of the interviews that we’ve had have felt like almost a moratorium since Day One — folks bringing up a million and one reasons why his campaign wasn’t gonna be viable,” Macías lamented. “The mainstream coverage — or lack thereof — that his campaign received was a big factor, particularly because the campaign doesn’t have the resources as other campaigns do to get their message out there to the American people, so a lot of the campaign’s ability to reach out to folks really did depend on this earned media.”
Colin Strother, a Texas Democratic strategist who once advised Castro, said the system seems like it was “engineered” to make the primary a three-person race between the “three white septuagenarians” in former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont while preventing diverse candidates like Castro, Harris and Booker from reaching the goal line.
But Castro’s staff is also responsible for his demise, Strother said, blaming the candidate’s senior team for robbing their candidate of the opportunity “to get to Super Tuesday, when brown people and black people are finally gonna get a chance to vote.”
“They knew what the process was. At the end of the day, you’ve got to have a strategy to give your candidate a shot, and Julián’s staff didn’t,” he said. “They were spending money they shouldn’t have spent and pushing a strategy that they had to have a reasonable assumption wasn’t gonna work.”
Castro’s first campaign stop was Puerto Rico, instead of the traditional Iowa or New Hampshire. And two days after the DNC announced its polling thresholds for the first two debates — thresholds that hinged on performance in the four early states — Castro’s campaign announced a 50-state tour.
The ploy may have been a creative effort to help him clinch 65,000 unique donors since 200 of them each needed to come from at least 20 different states. But the time and resources spent on trips to states like Idaho and Utah could have been used to campaign or advertise in Iowa, Nevada or Super Tuesday states.
After spending more than half-a-million dollars more than it raised in the third quarter, the campaign entered October with less than $700,000 cash on hand. Later that month, Castro warned his supporters that his campaign needed $800,000 to stay alive in the next 10 days to stay alive, emulating a strategy that helped extend the life of Booker’s campaign.
Castro met the self-imposed deadline, but still lacked the resources to sustain an ad campaign that could boost his polling high enough to qualify for upcoming debates. He missed the last two in November and December, and the party rejected campaigns’ plea to allow more candidates to debate later this month.
When he was on the debate stage, Castro held his own, winning plaudits on the left for endorsing decriminalizing illegal border crossings, naming Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was shot and killed by a police officer in Texas, and mentioning transgender people when talking about abortion access.
“It’s a strong symbol when somebody can literally change the narrative on a few issues and not have the polling numbers but still the candidates on the stage also go toward that policy,” said another former aide who worked under Castro at HUD. “He pushed the envelope further than black and brown people have seen in a while.”
Castro acknowledged Thursday morning “that it simply isn’t our time” but also signaled that he isn’t leaving the political arena.
Allies say he belongs in the conversation for vice president, highlighting him as a young, progressive minority with executive experience who became mayor of a major city and ran a Cabinet department in the Obama administration.
They note he would be a valuable asset to any Democratic ticket and could see him serving in a Cabinet position under a Democratic administration, running for governor of Texas in 2022 or possibly even president again in 2024 if Donald Trump is reelected.
“I’m not afraid to admit that on more than one occasion I’ve asked each and both of those brothers to run for governor,” said Hinojosa, the Texas state party chairman, alluding to Julián and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro.
But some Democrats warn that challenging Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is a fool’s errand because the state isn’t ready to put a Democrat in the governor’s mansion.
“He wasn’t really getting a lot of traction in Texas,” noted the aide who worked under Castro at HUD. “That’s a good symbol or sign that if you can’t even carry your own territory, how do you push against that narrative, that you’re strong enough or a viable candidate?”
Strother, the Democratic strategist, added that even after O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential race, the Texas Democratic community of donors, activists and elected officials didn’t coalesce behind Castro.
“If he couldn’t count on them in the biggest election of most of our lifetimes and in probably the modern history of the world, then I don’t think that he should expect that they’ll be there for him in a governor’s race,” Strother said, noting Abbott’s popularity and fundraising prowess.
In recent weeks, Castro had begun arguing for a greater focus on diversity on the front end of the primary calendar so that more people of color have more of a say in who ultimately becomes the nominee. No candidates of color this cycle have led polling in any of the four early states.
“A lot of people will point out and say, ‘Oh, but Barack Obama.’ Barack Obama is from Illinois, which is a bordering state to Iowa,” said the former aide who was downsized. “People in bordering states tend to do well, especially when you start sending volunteers. Right over the border isn’t that far. You talk about one exclusion, one exception. That’s not the rule. We have a lot of work to do as a Democratic Party to uplift our candidates [of color].”
Hinojosa, himself a Democratic Party leader, expressed frustration that the party’s system allowed a now-former mayor in Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., to become a front-runner at the expense of more qualified candidates of color.
“I don’t want to put down Pete Buttigieg, but give me a break. This guy never got more than 8,000 votes in any election,” Hinojosa said. “He’s a front-runner in Iowa versus these three other individuals? What the hell does that tell you?”
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