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It has been apparent for weeks, but on Wednesday it will become official: Julián Castro will not qualify for the November debate stage.
It’s a sobering reality for an already struggling campaign. Last week, the Democratic former San Antonio mayor’s team slashed staff in two early states. Last month, he threatened to end his White House bid if he didn’t raise $800,000 in the final 10 days of October – a goal he narrowly hit.
His campaign insists he’s not exiting the race now, but staying afloat with months to go before February’s Iowa caucus will be a tall task. The debates, in a sense, have been one of the few places for Castro to make his mark on the national stage in an attempt to boost his campaign’s poll numbers and fundraising.
Now with that no longer an option, his campaign is suggesting that it no longer sees having a national platform as a must. Instead, it’s staking its hopes on a strong finish in Iowa, Nevada and his home state of Texas.
“Debates are important to be able to draw contrasts with other candidates and to be able to highlight your vision,” said Sawyer Hackett, a Castro spokesman, “but Secretary Castro has done that on issue after issue outside of the framework of the debate, and he will continue to do so if we don’t make the debate stage in November.”
But Hackett still expressed regret about the possibility of Castro missing the cut.
“Secretary Castro has been a critical voice in each of the last debates, bringing up issues other candidates won’t address, like housing, education and policing,” Hackett said. “These issues would be lost without his voice on that debate stage.”
Castro has consistently made news at debates, and he was widely considered a winner in the first one in June after he pilloried fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke’s knowledge on immigration. But his time on the stage hasn’t reversed his long-sagging poll numbers.
His most recent campaign finance report in October showed he had just $672,000 on hand. He consistently polls closer to lesser-known Democrats like Michael Bennet, John Delaney and Steve Bullock than the field’s top tier of candidates.
The bar to make the November debate stage was 3 percent in four polls approved by the Democratic national committee or 5 percent in two early-state surveys. Castro didn’t meet that threshold in any qualifying poll – and the bar will be raised again for the December debates.
In recent weeks, Castro has slashed staff in South Carolina and New Hampshire as the campaign refocuses its resources to its three target states. His campaign said it’s looking to hire a Texas state director and just concluded a three-day swing through Iowa that included Castro escorting a Honduran refugee to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-in.
In some aspects, Castro still appears to be pushing his candidacy forward: His campaign has met the first filing deadlines of the cycle, which were Friday in Alabama and Tuesday in Arkansas. The New Hampshire deadline is Friday, and Castro filed Tuesday.
His decision to focus on Texas, Nevada and Iowa is a strategic one that takes into consideration his low staffing and financial resources. Castro recently debuted a $50,000 ad buy in Iowa that touts his numerous policy proposals while contrasting his vision for the country with President Donald Trump’s.
But Castro’s prospects in Iowa appear low. A recent Monmouth University Poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers puts him at 1 percent. Dave Peterson, a Whitaker-Lindgren faculty fellow in political science at Iowa State University, said Castro was one of the only candidates who spoke at the Democratic Party’s Liberty & Justice Celebration in Des Moines on Nov. 1 who didn’t have a section of seats slated for supporters. (Even O’Rourke, who dropped his bid hours before the event, had a reserved section for fans, he said.)
While Castro has targeted Nevada and Texas in large part because he hopes he can appeal to their diverse populations, Iowa’s Democratic electorate is overwhelmingly white. And if Castro were to finish in a strong position in Iowa, he’d need to quickly pivot to New Hampshire, the second primary state, which is also disproportionately white and where he recently shuttered his campaign.
“There’s very little time between Iowa and New Hampshire. So if you have the good fortune to surprise in Iowa, but you’ve cut your staff in New Hampshire and South Carolina, how do you take advantage of it?” said David Redlawsk, chair of the department of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware and visiting professor at the University of Iowa.
Perhaps in a nod to the challenges he has faced as a candidate of color in the first two primary states, Castro said over the weekend that the order of the primaries should change.
“Demographically, it’s not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party and other states should have their chance,” he said on MSNBC.
Despite the risks associated with Castro’s strategy, he appears to be pinning his hopes on a political Hail Mary – emboldened by the fact that traditional assumptions about who is an electable candidate have been out of touch with the current political moment.
He has attempted to shake his image of being too measured. He’s grown more aggressive in his attacks on the campaign trail and is cursing more. He’s also trying to stake a claim to his delegate-rich home state after O’Rourke’s abrupt exit from the presidential arena, though a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey showed only 2 percent of Texas Democratic primary voters backed Castro.
Castro’s team saw O’Rourke’s exit as a potential opportunity. According to a few people familiar with the phone calls, Castro reached out to several Texas elected officials the morning after O’Rourke’s announcement and said he wanted to give them time to think about who they would now support, but also wanted to roll out a new list of Texas endorsements – and he wanted to do so quickly.
Some of the calls were follow-ups from earlier in the year. Then, Castro had asked some of O’Rourke’s early supporters whether they would back his back his bid if there were ever a time when O’Rourke was out of the race. Now, while stressing the importance of having a Texan at the top of the ticket to help flip the state, Castro was cashing in on their promises.
Some people who have publicly pledged to vote for Castro are pinning their hopes on his new strategy’s success.
“If you can demonstrate you can win Nevada, you can demonstrate you can win other places such as Florida and Arizona,” said State Rep. César Blanco, one of nine Texans who endorsed Castro after O’Rourke’s exit. “I think that strategy is key.”
But for all the changes in strategy, there’s also the question of spark and connection. Castro lacks Elizabeth Warren’s and Joe Biden’s strength in the polls; he’s hasn’t benefited from the cash or attention Pete Buttigieg receives. He also doesn’t have the following of some of the more unconventional presidential candidates – a stark contrast to businessman Andrew Yang’s “Yang Gang” and even O’Rourke’s loyalists.
What’s left is a divide between those who believe Castro is bringing something unique to the table and those who believe there’s something deeper to why he isn’t gaining traction: that Castro’s poise and executive experience are ill matched for a political moment that’s been dominated by personalities, fresh faces and an all-encompassing desire to elect the person deemed best equipped to beat Trump.
“It’s not clear to me, quite honestly, what Castro’s unique selling proposition is at this point,” Redlawsk said. “What is it that differentiates him from the other choices candidates have?”