When Eloisa Melendez met Julián Castro, then U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, at a New Haven gathering of Connecticut political and community leaders nearly two years ago, the Norwalk city council member sensed that the Texas Democrat was the “real deal” politically.
“It is possible that some day he will be the first Latino president,” Melendez, a Democrat, said after Castro had a rock-star effect on the primarily Democratic crowd that overflowed the Fair Haven community center library. The opportunity to meet Castro attracted a virtual who’s who of Connecticut Latino civic and government leaders, as well as U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and several state representatives.
The 44-year-old Castro recently embarked on a quest that he hopes will bring Melendez’s “some day” as early as 2020. In mid-December, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, recently launched an exploratory committee to gauge whether he can be a viable candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He plans to announce his decision on January 12, 2019, thirteen months before the first-in-the nation and highly influential New Hampshire primary.
Many Latino leaders cheered and expressed pride in the entry of Castro, who is the son of a Mexican-American political activist, into the presidential race. However, they and most political observers are taking a wait-and-see approach to appraise his chances in a wide open race that portends to be similar to the Republican contest two years ago that put Donald Trump into the White House.
What Castro’s early foray into presidential politics can accomplish, political scientists suggest, is to build name recognition while other potential candidates are just “sending signals” that they are interested in running.
Castro is starting from a position that is not among the front runners, said Logan Dancy, assistant professor of political science at Wesleyan University in Middletown. “He has not had a high profile elective office like (Joe) Biden, (Bernie) Sanders or (Kamala) Harris,” said Dancy, whose fields of interest includes campaigns and elections.
Scott L. McLain, political science professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, offers a similar appraisal. “The last four months, Castro has not been a person people are talking about,” he said. “Castro is well known within Democratic insider circles, but he faces an uphill battle to make his name more recognizable generally.”
Moreover, despite getting a head start, Castro has some catching up to do in his home state. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who is likely to reveal his presidential aspirations by year’s end, already has a national following and has shown he can raise a lot of money quickly, thanks to his nearly successful effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz this year. “Castro cannot let O’Rourke get too far ahead,” McLain said.
Dancy also made note of a potential competition between Castro and O’Rourke for donors and voters in Texas. “There is only so much money and so many operatives and staffers,” the Wesleyan professor said.
Castro’s campaign chairman is his twin brother Joaquín, who represents the San Antonio area in the U.S. Congress. Julián is the older brother, he says, by one minute.
Although Castro currently is not among the half dozen most prominent names in the discussion of presidential candidates, he does get some recognition at the fringes of this conversation. The Washington Post’s November listing of the top fifteen Democratic contenders puts President Obama’s former housing chief in the honorable mentions. The Kiplinger Report similarly does not rank Castro, but mentions him as a long-shot and a December 6-9 CNN poll, taken before his announcement, puts his support at less than 1 percent.
One plus for Castro, McLain cited, is his bonafide Latino credentials. “He does not have to talk about Latino issues,” the professor said, and can appeal more to Democrats in general.
In his first campaign meetings with the media, Castro has talked about Medicare for all, the need for common-sense gun regulations and universal pre-kindergarten. He also supports addressing trade concerns with China, but espouses a multi-national approach rather than Trump’s tariff attacks.
Dancy pointed to the new lineup of presidential primaries this year as potentially benefiting Castro, particularly with California and Texas voting only a few weeks after the closely watched New Hampshire primary in 2020. “If he does have a base of Latino voters these early states can give him some traction,” Dancy said.
The mostly white Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire vote will again lead off on February 3 and 11 respectively. However, electoral powerhouses and more diverse California and Texas will vote on March 3 and are part of “Super Tuesday” lineup that currently includes nine states going to the polls. California has early voting and will be mailing out ballots on February 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses.
Even if Castro’s quest falls short of the 2020 Democratic nomination, there is an upside. “By testing the waters, he can cement his credibility as a rising star among the Democrats and this could be for a run for the presidency or something else (down he road),” McLain said.
Indeed, having Castro on the national ticket is not a new idea and was very much on the minds of many of the Democrats that met with him two years ago in New Haven.
“He could be the first Hispanic vice president,” said state Rep. Robert Sanchez, a New Britain Democrat, who was aware that Castro was then on the short list for his party’s number 2 slot. However, the Democrats paired Hillary Clinton with a white southerner, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and the rest is history.