democratic primaries

The Tragedy and Triumph of Julián Castro

Julián Castro.
Julián Castro. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

The great tragedy of Julián Castro’s presidential campaign is that it’s happening during Donald Trump’s presidency. Democratic strategists and voters alike are so fixated on ousting the commander-in-chief that panic has consumed the primary, driven above all else by anxiety about which candidate is the most likely to defeat him. Joe Biden has benefitted in an outsized manner from this worry. He’s coasted to the top of most polls on sheer familiarity and goodwill generated by his relationship with Barack Obama, despite signs of mental decline exacerbating his well-documented tendency toward gaffes. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have cornered the market on leftists and progressive voters, respectively, who feel that class warfare from below will not just oust Trump but upend the society that gave him rise.

These three candidates combined command the allegiances of more than half of prospective primary voters, according to most polls, leaving little room for the remainder of an unprecedentedly vast, diverse, and perpetually expanding field to gain traction. Which is a shame, because a different cycle might’ve been more amenable to a candidate like Castro, whose singular perspective on racism and justice would, in a better world, find him in the upper tier of candidates. Alas, it looks increasingly like it wasn’t meant to be: Politico reported late Wednesday that the former Housing Secretary and San Antonio mayor has failed to qualify for the November debate, making him the only active candidate to participate in last month’s debate in Ohio who won’t make the trip to Atlanta. The deadline to qualify was midnight, and the threshold was receiving donations from 165,000 unique contributors, plus hitting 3 percent in four DNC-approved polls or 5 percent in two conducted in the early states. Castro reached the fundraising goal but didn’t eclipse 3 percent in a single poll. This is emblematic of his broader campaign, which has consistently found him hovering around 1 percent.

There’s been no announcement yet about Castro’s next move, though failure to qualify for a debate has been a death knell for other campaigns this cycle, like that of Kirsten Gillibrand. Beto O’Rourke’s low polling numbers similarly prompted him to drop out of the race last month. One can attribute Castro’s shortfall to several factors — his relatively low national profile, his specificity of vision in a cycle where mass appeal is prioritized, his identity as a Mexican-American at a time when candidates are vying for support from a majority-white electorate that backed Trump, whose animus toward Latinos was a vital part of his success. But his failure to gain traction also belies the most admirable feature of his campaign: He’s sought to differentiate himself not by convincing voters of his attractiveness to white suburban Wisconsinites or sanctimonious Never Trumpers, but by promising to advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable among us, particularly black and brown people caught up in the criminal-legal system.

This was not an intuitive choice. Despite intensified hostility among Democrats toward the deployment of so-called “identity politics” — the practice, in the view of its detractors, of segmenting the electorate into niche groups on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and appealing to them through the particularities of their experiences — Castro has cast himself as a racial-justice candidate, tying his electoral fortunes to the passions generated by the Black Lives Matter movement and its corresponding debate around racism, immigration, and law enforcement. He has touted himself as the only candidate with a platform dedicated to reforming American policing, marked by proposals to collect more data on police stops, searches, and summonses; to compel officers to intervene when they witness their colleagues using excessive force; and to lower the burden of prosecution for officer misconduct, among other items. Accordingly, at multiple debates, he’s name-dropped victims of police violence to illustrate points about law-enforcement reform and gun control, from Mike Brown to Antonio Arce to Atatiana Jefferson. He’s submitted perhaps the most comprehensive and humane immigration platform in the field, focused on decriminalizing undocumented border crossings and boosting Latin American economies to prevent those crossings from happening in the first place.

Generating such a platform has required Castro to engage with advocates who’ve spent years trying to get presidents to prioritize these issues. Little in his past suggests that racial justice would’ve been the key feature of a future presidential run. He’s traditionally stayed out of public debates about such topics, and was most widely discussed before as a figure who’d probably be big in Democratic politics someday but had yet to prove himself — in other words, ideal running-mate material (a possibility that’s still not out of the question in 2020). But by embracing these issues during his presidential run, he’s managed to both set himself apart and put together a uniquely thoughtful and humane series of proposals targeting the plight of criminalized black Americans and Latinos — and in a more recent initiative, people with disabilities — with unusual specificity. It’s an effort that eschews the conventional wisdom that says the Democrats’ path to victory runs through recapturing white working-class voters, instead taking what’s come to be understood as the Stacey Abrams approach: activating marginalized and minority voters who too often feel alienated from politics.

Castro’s approach may very well be folly, from an electoral standpoint. It’s certainly failed to pay dividends for him this election cycle. Barring a dramatic turnaround, the Texan probably isn’t much longer for the 2020 race, and might have to settle for fielding offers from more successful candidates to join their ticket, if they so choose. Unfortunately, this would mean the rest of Americans bidding farewell to a campaign refreshingly devoid of the desperation and rhetorical sameness that’s befouled the Democratic field. Castro’s valuable contributions — like his warning that gun buybacks and confiscations could put people of color into dangerous contact with the police — will once again fall by the wayside. But by focusing his run on a set of issues most pressing for black people, Latinos, and other marginalized Americans, he’s willfully defied intraparty arguments that say doing so risks electoral ruin. It’s a tacit rebuke of the Democratic precept that takes black and Latino votes for granted while doing the bare minimum to improve their lot. Even with Trump looming and an electorate that has proven alarmingly open to his brand of white nationalism, there’s something to be said for that.

What America Loses If Julián Castro Drops Out