Julián Castro Is Headed to Iowa, but He Thinks the Path to the White House Runs Through the Southwest

As Castro heads to Iowa, those close to him speculate about what his candidacy could mean for a racially diverse and politically divided electorate.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro addresses the Texas Democratic convention, Friday, June 17, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro addresses the Texas Democratic convention on June 17, 2016, in San Antonio. Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Flanked by conga drums and keyboards at the Hispanicize conference in Miami in April, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio Julián Castro wasn’t surrounded by the trappings of a typical presidential campaign.  But he sure sounded like a 2020 candidate, delivering a first draft of a stump speech that will soon get a hearing in the state that holds the first caucus of the presidential campaign.

He will be making his first trip to Iowa on June 23, Castro told The Intercept in an interview, as the featured speaker at a Linn County Democrats fundraising event for Iowa candidates. Later that day, he’ll appear at a rally for Flip It Iowa, a grassroots organization that works to flip seats from Republican to Democrat. The next day, he’ll meet with state legislative leaders and speak to the Iowa Brown and Black Forum organizers. He said he has also reached out to the College and Young Democrats of Iowa for a meeting.

While some Democrats contend that they’re only focused on this November, others, like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., have signaled their intention to run in 2020 by visiting Iowa — a state to which certain predictive qualities are ascribed.

Wayne Ford, one of the co-founders of the Iowa Brown and Black Forum, recently told The Intercept that he has already heard from two major prospective 2020 candidates: Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J. — suggesting that they, too, are laying the groundwork for a 2020 campaign. (In 2016, the forum hosted all three of the Democratic primary candidates.)

Although Castro won’t go as far as confirming his intention to run, he has no problem discussing his not-exactly-hypothetical candidacy. “If I decide to become a candidate, I’m going to offer a positive vision for the future,” Castro told The Intercept. Describing his prospective campaign as an investment in people, Castro listed his priorities, including pre-K for every 4-year-old, affordable education, and an inclusive focus on all communities, both rural and urban.

Castro feels strongly that a positive vision for the country is needed to beat Donald Trump, and that a scorched earth, anti-Trump message is insufficient. That vision includes so-called bread and butter concerns beyond what are described, at times pejoratively, as “identity issues.”

In fact, Castro and his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, tend to downplay what it would mean to be the Mexican-American candidate in the race, noting that immigration, jobs, and education are popular priorities among all American families. “Julián talks about those common experiences, struggles, and challenges people face in a way that transcends the particulars of people’s background,” his brother said.

But that doesn’t stop his team from sharing big dreams about how a Mexican-American candidate might play in a state where nearly 40 percent of the population is Latino.

Some in Castro’s orbit believe that Texas may be in play in 2020 — partly because of demographic shifts in the increasingly nonwhite state. For years, pollsters have found that Latinos turn out when there are Latinos on the ballot — particularly if their names are recognizably Latin. The hope, then, is that Castro might fare especially well in Southwestern states with large Latino populations, thereby radically changing the national electoral calculus.

His inner circle believes that traditional swing states may be replaced by new swing states like Arizona and Texas, which were closer electoral contests than Iowa and almost as close as Ohio in 2016. Democrats could win in 2020 without Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania if Texas and Arizona were to go blue.

Castro, like many national Democrats, believes that Midwestern swing states are winnable in 2020. But as Democrats push harder to win and turn out the Latino vote, some new research suggests that, at least in some contexts, these efforts may further depress white support, much like what happened to Democrats after the civil rights movement. “This pattern, I find, is driven by the effects that such information has on the racial prototypes associated with each party,” writes Mara Cecilia Ostfeld in the journal Political Behavior. “All together, these findings point to a new phase of racial realignment in the American political system.”

Should he make his run official, Castro already has the endorsement of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a senior member of congress who is confident about Castro’s ability to turn out Latino voters. “I absolutely would support him,” said Cleaver, the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Texas native. “I actually believe now that had he been on the ticket, we would have won the presidency. We would have won Texas, possibly — had a greater chance in Arizona. I don’t think there’s any question he would have energized the Latino turnout to the point that the electoral votes would have gone to Clinton as well as the popular vote. Julian is a perfect person for the campaign and the presidency.”

But Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, cautioned against a presumption that a Hispanic candidate is an automatic win with Latinos. He said ethnic pride is real, but it’s not a be-all and end-all.

“The worst thing Julian Castro can say is: ‘I have the Latino vote in the bag because of my last name and because I was mayor of San Antonio,’” Vargas said, after learning of Castro’s designs in Southwestern states. “The only way that materializes is if there is significant investment in Latino voter turnout in those states. We just have not seen it at the level that you need for that level of statewide impact.”

Billy Vassiliadis, Nevada’s most influential political consultant and a longtime Harry Reid adviser, said Castro is an intriguing candidate for the Southwest — especially at a time when Democrats are holding out hope that another young, appealing Barack Obama-like figure might be just over the horizon. “A lot of us would jump on the first candidate that caught fire just to beat Trump,” he said.  

But he’s still skeptical about Texas.

“I fear it’s unrequited love,” he said of Democrats eyeing the Lone Star State. “They haven’t had a Democratic governor since Ann Richards,” whose term ended in 1995. Vassiliadis hasn’t written off the possibility of a Castro win, but he’s looking to other Southwestern elections, like the race to fill Sen. Jeff Flake’s Arizona seat, as predictive of Castro’s odds: “I hope Arizona isn’t the hopeless siren’s call for Democrats,” he said.

But if Texans aren’t yet true-blue, they aren’t in the bag for Trump’s brand of conservatism either. “Trump doesn’t sell well in Texas,” said Joaquin Castro. “Even though the state leans conservative, they don’t really like brash obnoxiousness in Texas.”  

It’s possible, then, that Castro has a chance.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 12:  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (C) attends a reception for Hispanic Heritage Month also attended by President Barack Obama  in the East Room of the White House on October 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. The president praised gains made by Hispanics in education, income and health insurance during his administration.  (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Julián Castro, center, attends a reception for Hispanic Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 12, 2016.

Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Robert Zimmerman, a Clinton fundraiser, noted there’s a history of Democratic upsets in Iowa primaries, citing as evidence John Kerry’s win from 30 points down in 2004, Obama’s unexpected 2008 victory over Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Julián Castro has an incredible personal story to tell and an incredible record of public service, he will do extremely well,” he told The Intercept. Zimmerman said the three rules in Iowa are “organizing, organizing, and organizing,” and he believes Castro will be well-positioned to fundraise and work the grassroots to do so. “But there are many challenges along the way and many strong candidates going to Iowa. Iowa and New Hampshire are critical states — you have to win one of the two to move forward.”

One of those candidates may be Bernie Sanders, who continues to rate among the most popular politicians in America, and whose supporters may hold Castro’s 2016 endorsement of Clinton (and harsh critique of Sanders) in 2016 against him. Castro said he wouldn’t be too worried about that prospect.

“I’m proud of my support for Hillary and I have a lot of respect for Bernie. I liked a lot of the things he was saying in 2016, and I said that at the time,” explained Castro. “I’m convinced the differences among Democrats are much smaller than the deep differences we have with Trump and Republicans. We need to find common ground, because the prospect of several more years of Republican control of Congress and the presidency represents a nightmare scenario for the people that all of us care about.”

Privately, Castro allies feel the Democratic primary should be fought in less personal terms than the 2016 contest, blaming fake Facebook and Twitter bots for the volume of finger-pointing and the harder edge of the race. “Russian bots were pouring acid into different wounds in American political life,” Joaquin Castro said.

But Nomiki Konst, a Sanders appointee on the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission, had a somewhat less sanguine view, observing that some of Sanders’s supporters may, in fact, take issue with Castro’s 2020 candidacy if his own policies hew too closely to Clinton’s. “Cynthia Nixon was a Hillary supporter, but she’s a bold progressive unapologetically challenging the status quo” against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, she said.  

Castro discussed his stance on free college, “Medicare for All,” a federal jobs guarantee, and a $15 minimum wage plan — all issues which have become litmus tests of sorts for Democratic hopefuls in the wake of Sanders’s influence. He said he supports a plan to make at least the first two years of college free — similar to plans adopted in at least 11 states so far — but didn’t go as far as supporting a free college plan as expansive as Sanders’s. He also says he believes in “Medicare for All,” though he has not committed to a particular plan.

“I think it’s a shame that the minimum wage has not kept up with worker productivity,” he said, telling The Intercept that he supports a $15 minimum wage.

Regarding a federal jobs guarantee plan, Castro said he supports Booker’s idea for a pilot program of the plan, which he unveiled in April. He says the goal is to figure out “how we can accomplish that in the 21st century, to make sure we can do that in a way that provides employment for everybody that is willing to work but doesn’t damage the private employment market?”

Joe Henry, the national vice president for Midwest branch of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, recognized the need to learn from Sanders’s appeal. He remembers sitting across from Sanders at a cafe in Iowa in 2015, before he announced his candidacy, and thinking “who is going to listen to this grouchy guy?” But then, Sanders started speaking “out of church” and captivated people. Henry says that memory will inform his conversations with prospective candidates like Castro.

“The early candidates need to talk about how our country was built by immigrants,” Henry acknowledged, but the material issues stressed by Sanders shouldn’t come far behind.

“What makes Castro a good candidate is that he has felt, through the Latino community, issues that reflect major concerns for all Americans,” said Henry, whose organization helped register thousands of Hispanic voters in Iowa. “We’re feeling the repercussions of hate, attacks on women and other minority groups, and the fight for good jobs and education. That’s what we’re going to ask him to talk about. Many of our voters supported Bernie Sanders. So, as they say: It’s about the economy, stupid.”

Paul Begala, the longtime Bill Clinton adviser and CNN contributor, said that while conventional factors like money and endorsements “will still matter for Democrats, ideas and intangibles will matter more.”

“It’s about who fits the mood of the times,” Begala said. “What I don’t know is: Do Democrats want their own version of Trump or the total opposite? The old [David] Axelrod thing — ‘the remedy or the replica?’”

Begala argued that while early in Trump’s presidency, politically and temperamentally moderate Democrats like Ralph Northam, Conor Lamb, and Doug Jones have found success, 2020 may be a different animal. “People may want their own liberal Trump telling everybody to eff off.’”

But Konst, who also covers movements for the Young Turks, said it’s really simple.

“Real politics is about movements. The formula never changed,” she said. “Whether it’s Kamala Harris, Julián Castro, or Jeff Merkley, if they’re not building a movement, they have absolutely no chance to defeat Donald Trump.” Her fear is that the establishment is too set in its ways to get out of its own way. “I’m worried the Democratic Party is too shortsighted. The party is controlled by the donors who are invested in raising money for these candidates, not in movements. It doesn’t pay well to build movements.”

Like LULAC’s Henry, Konst said the economy is the priority, and representing working people is the way to unify the party. “If Democrats are the party of the masses, you need to include a message that will get them out to vote,” she said. “No tag lines and no blue wave emoji on Twitter is going to get people to the polls.”

Cleaver recalled sitting in Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters during the final week of the 2016 race and hearing that voters were planning to stay home. Cleaver, who has said there is frustration among some African-Americans that the Democratic Party has taken them for granted, acknowledged that the same could probably be said for young voters and Latinos. He believes that this next generation of Democrats, from Castro to Harris and Booker, could galvanize African-American and Latino support, as well “the Bernie bunch” of progressive voters — many of whom are also African-American and Latino.

“I think the youth vote is up for grabs,” Cleaver said. “And if we’re able to get an articulate, charismatic, maybe even bilingual candidate, I think he or she will be almost a magnet to Democrats, both young and old.”

Castro — who says he will decide whether to run after the November midterms — was able to rule out a different higher office, saying he’s not interested in vying for a vice presidential spot.

“I spent the better part of two years at the top of forecasters’ opinion on who might be VP,” he said. “I just have zero interest in that.”

Surveying the 2020 landscape one last time before the end of our call, it seemed clear what job Castro is interested in.  

“People supported Trump to clean up the government, but his administration in Washington has become so corrupt and a spectacular example of cronyism,” Castro said. “It’s about how to benefit itself and its friends in Washington more than you or your family. We need leadership that is honest, has integrity, and can unite the country, not divide it. As months go by, people will become more disillusioned with the president’s leadership. Ask folks in those places in the Midwest who thought their jobs were going to be saved. So much of what he promised hasn’t reached families.”

Top photo: Then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro addresses the Texas Democratic Convention on June 17, 2016, in San Antonio.

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