On Wednesday night in Atlanta, Americans will be treated to the fifth Democratic presidential primary debate. It will, like the preceding debates, feature a former vice president, six sitting members of Congress, one billionaire, a millionaire tech mogul, and a small-town mayor. But there will be one new and notable absence: Julián Castro.
What’s most surprising about Castro’s absence is how unsurprised so many people are by it, despite the fact that he’s been, by many measures, the most progressive candidate in the field. Like Bernie Sanders, Castro is uncompromising when it comes to his push for single-payer health insurance. His detailed policy plans are on par with Elizabeth Warren’s, proposing a network of interlocking plans to elevate the downtrodden. He was mayor of San Antonio, the seventh most populous city in America; Pete Buttigieg is mayor of the 306th largest. And while Joe Biden gets enormous credit for being Obama’s second-in-command, Castro was Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017.
On issues of racial justice, Castro has often led the way, pushing progressive stances on issues like reparations and border decriminalization. He’s also deeply attuned to the intellectual and activist spheres on the left, listening and learning from their lived experiences and expertise.
Yet people don’t seem to care. After failing to reach the polling levels required to make it on stage for the November debate in Atlanta, Castro will be forced to sit out the televised showdown. Unless his polling numbers change, and do so in a hurry, he’ll probably be sitting out the December debate too — assuming he’s still in the race. (Castro should have at least some reason for optimism: His exclusion from the November debate seems to have sparked a sudden wave of media coverage and social media support from a broader swath of the left that seems afraid of losing his voice.)
Like any seasoned politician, Castro maintains a good poker face. In a phone interview this week, he insisted that he can keep contributing to the broader debate about the nature of the Democratic coalition and the best ways to beat Donald Trump. He says he even still sees a path to victory.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about the polls,” he said. “It’s about the vote and about beating expectations in these early states.”
Of course it is also about polling. And no matter how he spins it, Castro’s exclusion on Wednesday is a huge blow to his campaign.
Every politician needs a good origin story to tell. Biden had his blue collar days in Scranton and decades as Amtrak’s favorite customer. Warren lived through financial hardship in Oklahoma and went on to become a law school professor at Harvard. Buttigieg, an out gay man, served in the military after accumulating sterling academic credentials.
Julián Castro was born, along with his twin brother, Joaquin, in September 1974. That was three years after his mother, Rosa, attempted to become the first Hispanic woman elected to the San Antonio City Council (a race she lost), and a few decades after his grandmother immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Julián grew up in San Antonio, graduated high school in three years, attended Stanford University, and then Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 2000.
Castro became the youngest councilman in San Antonio history when, in 2001, he won election at just 26 years old. By 2009 he was mayor, founding the free college access center cafécollege and winning an increased sales tax to vastly expand pre-K education.
It was, says Jaime Castillo, a longtime former aide to Castro, harder than “passing basketball-sized kidney stones,” thanks to the prevailing anti-tax sentiment statewide.
And Castro’s star continued to rise. In 2012, he was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Two years later, he was appointed by President Obama to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Despite this résumé, Castro never quite caught the initial wave of media attention that would have elevated his candidacy. His staff can rattle off his accomplishments: Castro was among the first to announce his run; among the first to pledge not to take PAC money (before even Warren); and the first presidential campaign in history with unionized workers. But none of this garnered much media coverage.
“It’s just hilarious,” said Castillo, “He’ll have a pronouncement on something, whether its immigration or climate or anything. And then someone will come in a month or two later and [the media will say] ‘Wow! It’s the first time we ever heard this.’ He doesn’t get the credit.”
“We’re risking a repeat of 2016.”
This sentiment was echoed by Castro’s staff and supporters. They feel he’s been in sync with or ahead of the other candidates on every issue, but somehow still can’t get the coverage. (Biden, Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders have dominated on that front.)
In our conversation, Castro seemed resigned to the current situation, worried that both the national political media and D.C. powers-that-be are mostly paying attention to white candidates on the theory that only they can win the white working class voters who helped lift Trump into the White House.
“Right now we’re risking a repeat of 2016,” Castro said. “2016 happened in part because African American turnout fell. Latino turnout fell. Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania success depends on people of color as well.” He argues that the media’s focus on white candidates risks further demoralizing non-white turnout.
Among the problems with being excluded from the debate stage is that this is where he’s had his biggest breakout moments. At the first debate, he responded to a question about abortion rights by trying to point out that cis women are not the only people who need abortions.
“I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom,” Castro said in June. “I believe in reproductive justice. And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman — or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.”
Castro flubbed the line by saying “trans female,” instead of trans men or non-binary individuals who can become pregnant, but it was also the first time that the issue of abortion access for trans and non-binary individuals had ever been raised during a presidential debate. (Politico writer Katelyn Burns initially criticized Castro’s blunder, but says Castro’s campaign reached out to ask how they could avoid such “language pitfalls,” going forward. “I was impressed,” she added.)
Castro clearly wishes he didn’t botch the line, but said that it wasn’t planned and the whole event illustrated his eagerness to improve. “During the course of the campaign, you learn things,” he said. “And you have to be humble enough as a leader to be willing to learn.”
Those who have not followed his career may not know that he’s been proactive on trans rights since he was mayor. It wasn’t until the campaign, though, that he learned about the need to be more inclusive around trans abortion access. Candidates such as Elizabeth Warren also have included trans access to reproductive care in their policies, but have not elevated the issue in prime time.
The second debate featured a back and forth between Castro and Joe Biden over the legacy of the Obama administration, which many pundits turned into a referendum on whether Castro had been too angry. “It seemed as though Vice President Biden was trying to take all the credit [for Obama’s accomplishments], but not happy to answer questions about how we might be able to build on or improve on some of the work on health or immigration.” Castro said that serving Obama was “the honor of my life,” but that he’s trying to move forward and do more.
As for the media, Castro sounded frustrated: “Everything is always personalized. It’s not personal. Vice President Biden and I have a good relationship. But this is a primary and we have to let people know not only our own vision, but what the differences are among the candidates.”
The third debate offered yet another signature moment for Castro, when he spoke about the death of Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of police as a reason to avoid mandatory gun buybacks, because of the potential unintended consequences of the federal policy. “Police violence,” he said, “is also gun violence.” This sparked enormous enthusiasm among online communities devoted to police and prison reform, and may have helped him raise a much-needed $800,000 in cash in late October. It still wasn’t enough to move the polls.
In fact none of it has been: not the cutting-edge policies, not the broad experience, and not being a compelling speaker.
In this, he has been a victim of the enormous presidential field, led for a long time by men who were already household names. “It was difficult for him to get the name recognition and media attention out of the gate,” said Matthew Barreto, the co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions. Castro had “jumped into a field with a bunch of high-profile candidates.” Biden and Sanders dominated initially, then Warren and Harris caught waves of attention as “voters started to make room for new candidates,” said Barreto. Without that attention, Castro couldn’t raise enough money to buy enough attention to separate himself from the pack.
Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and former advisor to Bill Clinton, said that Castro has plenty of talent and experience, but suffers from “a perceived lack of authenticity.” Castro’s stances as a candidate can appear out of character and radical, especially when it comes to issues like decriminalization of the border or reparations for slavery. “He can’t point to a moment while Obama was deporting people that he spoke out,” Begala said. “He can’t point to a reparations plan when he was Mayor of San Antonio.”
The other problem, according to Begala, is that Sanders and Warren so dominate the far left that there’s not a lot of room for Castro there, and he’s clearly not catching on with less liberal communities — including many communities of color, which are more politically moderate than many analysts assume. Begala pointed to a Gallup poll from last January that found Democrats wanted a more moderate party. Too many candidates, he said, are focused on appealing to white liberals. “The heart of the Democratic Party is people of color. No one has won the Democratic nomination since they started having primaries without the black vote and the Latino vote.”
“I think that people are influenced by what the media have drilled in as who’s electable in 2020.”
Here, Castro is suffering from the debate over electability that so frequently has roiled the contest. Barreto says Latino voters aren’t sure he can win. As they’ve gotten to know him through the debates, Barreto said, Latino voters like him, but too many voters don’t believe Castro’s campaign is viable. “At a certain point,” Barreto says, “Even Latino voters are not seeing him register... They like him, they like his policies, but viability is very important to voters.” He says that even if they really like a candidate, they “might go with their second or even third favorite,” if they think they are more viable.
“I think that people are influenced by what the media have drilled in as who’s electable in 2020,” Castro told GEN. “The entire narrative has focused around a candidate being able to appeal to white voters in the Midwest. What people take from that is that it’s going to take a certain kind of candidate. I’m confident that I can appeal if I’m the nominee, I can appeal to a whole cross section of people — white, black, brown, Asian American, Native American.”
“I believe that between now and the Iowa caucuses, I can surprise people,” Castro said.
He acknowledges that he needs to beat expectations to stay in the race past the early states. His hope is to use a better-than-expected result in Iowa “to propel my candidacy forward and get to states like Nevada and then Texas and California,” which have large Latino populations.
In the meantime, 10 other candidates will be taking the stage in Atlanta. And Julián Castro will be stuck watching it on TV and tweeting about it, hoping to stay in contention.