by Philip Wegmann – RCP Staff
He left his former in-state competitor a conciliatory voicemail and then started scrounging for endorsements for his own campaign. Such is life for former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who polls just a tenth of a percentage point above a self-help spiritualist in the still-crowded Democratic presidential primary.
When former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race last week, Castro made the call and then made some more. And it worked. As the last Texan standing, he flipped nine Lone Star State endorsements that previously belonged to O’Rourke to his own campaign.
He also launched a new ad campaign in Iowa. That, plus the endorsements, are evidence, his campaign manager said, of how Castro is prepared to “supercharge the coalitions needed to beat Donald Trump.”
Except a supercharger requires an engine with some gas, and Castro bus appears to be dangerously close to empty. The endorsements come at a moment when the candidate has stripped his campaign down to bare bones. He laid off campaign teams in New Hampshire and South Carolina over the weekend. Between the mixed messages of endorsements and layoffs, then, what should voters make of the former mayor of San Antonio?
“I would make of it that we see a path forward for his campaign and it goes through Iowa, Nevada and Texas,” a Castro aide told RealClearPolitics. “We will continue to push to make the debates and make a run to Iowa.”
Castro could find hope in Atlanta if he qualifies for the Nov. 20 debate there. He capitalized during earlier debates, mostly by targeting O’Rourke. Those attacks helped him win further airtime, but the shots he took at former Vice President Joe Biden over his lagging memory only earned him a swift rebuke for perceived ageism.
Castro might not even make it to the fifth debate — or the sixth one in December. To qualify, the Democratic National Committee requires candidates either register 3% support in at least four national polls or 5% in polls of early voting states. So far, he falls short.
This isn’t the first time he has faced trouble. Castro imposed a cash deadline on his campaign last month: Raise $800,000 or we’re out of the race. His donors delivered.
“We set an extremely ambitious goal to keep Secretary Castro’s voice in this race, and our supporters met the challenge and delivered one of the best months of the campaign to date,” Campaign Manager Maya Rupert said in a statement. “We’re not going anywhere — Julián will keep being a voice for the voiceless, and a champion for the Americans who have been left behind.”
Voters aren’t exactly clamoring for the Obama administration Cabinet member. Nor is there much to pick from on the bones of O’Rourke’s campaign. A call to action on gun violence gave that candidate a boost for a bit but couldn’t stop his downward trajectory. Even if Castro can cannibalize what remains of that support, he still sits far behind the pack in both Iowa and Texas.
But hope springs eternal, and supporters rightly note that the primary is far from over. They talk about how then-Sen. Barack Obama was written off before winning the whole show in 2008, and they note that the late Sen. John McCain flew to campaign events on Southwest Airlines before becoming the Republican nominee. They say anything can happen.
The field is too big, and the current polling won’t be final, Texas state Rep. Art Fierro told RealClearPolitics. He backed O’Rourke until recently. Now Castro has his support.
“I don’t believe that the people leading the top of the polls right now — Biden, Warren, Sanders — are going to make it,” Fierro said. “I believe that when it is all said and done, it is going to be somebody underneath those top three who is going to be our best bet.”
In other words, there will be moving and shaking and kicking and screaming before a nominee emerges. Fierro believes his fellow Texan should consider hunkering down and focusing on their home state, where voters go to the polls in March.
“If that’s the plan, I think it’s a great plan,” he said. “If I was in that situation, that is what I would be trying to achieve. Make it as long as I can,” and then wait for the right moment to reintroduce himself and his “great ideas and great vision.”
The Texas Democrats who now back Castro after supporting O’Rourke unsurprisingly hype the importance of their state. If they can win there in the general election, a sentiment long dismissed as a fever dream until O’Rourke lost narrowly to Sen. Ted Cruz by just 2.6 percentage points in 2018, then the map and the direction of the country change forever.
State Rep. Gene Wu says that if his party wins Texas next November, Republicans “may never win another presidential election again.” Hence, in his opinion, the need for Castro as the nominee.
All of it sounds good on paper, the type of master plan that works on a whiteboard but could fall to pieces once voters start casting their ballots. For now, it’s the best the Castro campaign can hope for and they’re betting it all on Iowa, Nevada and, perhaps most importantly, Texas.