DES MOINES — And then there was one.
Julián Castro became the sole Texan in the presidential race after Beto O’Rourke ended his campaign Friday, a sudden departure that creates new opportunity for Castro. But the former U.S. housing secretary is facing an uncertain fate of his own and trying to forge forward despite the long odds, sharpening his pitch as a unique advocate for the voiceless in the still-crowded primary field.
“This campaign has marched to the beat of its own drummer,” Castro said Friday night here at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration. “We’ve been a little bit different from all the other campaigns. We haven’t been the same. We’ve been speaking up for the most vulnerable folks in this country — people sleeping on the streets and in storm drainage tunnels in Las Vegas, folks who are the victims of police brutality.”
Still, Castro’s message is colliding with cold hard political realities. While he met a self-imposed deadline Thursday to raise $800,000 or drop out, there is talk of potential staff departures soon, and it remains very unlikely he will qualify for the next debate on Nov. 20. He has the 165,000 donors required for the debate, but he has not yet received the 3% he needs in any of the four qualifying polls, and the deadline is 11 days away.
“For now, we’re working like crazy to try and get on that November debate stage,” Castro told reporters here Friday. Asked how realistic that goal is, Castro insisted he was “gonna keep working.”
Castro said the $800,000 would be used to “keep the campaign going” and to air ads to boost his poll numbers in the early voting states. The money is expected to help pay staff for a little longer, but the campaign has also been open with staffers about imminent tough decisions and given them the green light to look elsewhere for work if they want to, according to people familiar with the campaign.
Those details were first reported Saturday by CNN. Castro spokesman Sawyer Hackett told the network that “in pushing to keep Secretary Castro’s critical voice in this race, our campaign, like many others, will make adjustments in staffing and resources.”
Now that O’Rourke is no longer running, the campaign is increasing its focus on delegate-rich Texas, which holds its primary on March 3 — Super Tuesday. While Castro’s poll numbers have never been as high as in Texas as O’Rourke’s were — and he has not been as organized in the state as O’Rourke was — Castro’s supporters see a new state of play at home.
“I understand [Joe] Biden and [Elizabeth] Warren have semblances of campaigns here, but I don’t think they were going to do what [Castro and O’Rourke] would be able to do,” said state Rep. Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass, who has endorsed Castro.
“I don’t see how this doesn’t benefit Julián. It’s his opportunity,” he said. “Maybe a lot of people didn’t see a path forward, but we had to assume that at some point a herd was going to get culled and if he can survive some of those first culls, and he has, then it becomes a different game.”
While zeroing in on Texas, Castro will also continue to focus on two states that he has previously suggested were priorities for his campaign: Iowa and Nevada, the first state in the nominating process with a significant Latino population. While there has not been much polling in Nevada — much to Castro’s chagrin — he has been far behind in Iowa surveys, getting 0% in a New York Times/Siena College poll released Friday morning.
Asked if there remains a path forward for Castro in Iowa, Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, responded in an email with a “no” and a straight-faced emoji. “I don’t see his slice of Iowa caucus participants,” Schmidt said.
Still, Castro is determined to prove his bona fides as a candidate distinctly focused on the most vulnerable communities. On Friday afternoon, he bypassed the traditional activities before the state party dinner in downtown Des Moines to visit the nearby YMCA Supportive Housing Campus, which provides permanent housing and services to the homeless and those at risk of being homeless. Castro spent an hour and a half touring the facility and holding a roundtable with advocates, reminding them at one point that he has made housing a “front-and-center issue” in his campaign.
“We’ve been trying to address issues that a lot of other campaigns, for whatever other reason, don’t want to address or don’t take the time to address,” Castro said at the roundtable’s conclusion.
Castro continued to make a similar case at the Liberty and Justice Celebration, saying Democrats are “great at talking about the middle class — and we need to fight for the middle class and I’m fighting for the middle class — but we also need to fight for the poor and those who have the least, those who suffer the most.”
It was not the only time this weekend that Castro had blunt talk for fellow Democrats. He bristled Saturday at opponent Pete Buttigieg’s suggestion that the primary was becoming a two-person race between himself and Elizabeth Warren, saying anybody who thinks that “doesn’t know anything about the black and Latino community.”
Buttigieg, the white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has struggled to make inroads with black voters as he has emerged as a serious candidate for the nomination — and a top-tier contender in Iowa.
“The Democratic Party in 2020 cannot afford to nominate somebody that can’t appeal to the African-American community and the Latino community,” Castro said. “If we do, we’re playing right into Donald Trump’s hands.”
Hours later, Buttigieg told reporters that he did not think the comment about a two-person race “came out right” and praised the overall strength of the field.