The allure of San Antonio’s Castro brothers has been building for years and their status as the crown princes of a new era of Texas Hispanic politics is now well established. As one longtime Democratic consultant said, they have successfully established themselves as the next generation of leadership in Texas, with an Ivy League pedigree and reputation for strategic thinking. But something happened this election cycle: Beto O’Rourke.
As the Democratic consultant said, “Julián and his brother are like Bing Crosby and Perry Como—who just saw Elvis.”
Before Beto, there has been a well-choreographed buildup to the will-he-or-won’t-he moment when former San Antonio mayor and former Obama cabinet member Julián Castro announces his decision about a presidential run in 2020.
Along with high-profile trips to early presidential campaign states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, Castro has been making appearances on behalf of candidates in Texas and beyond, as well as contributing to the campaigns of 22 congressional candidates through a political action committee he controls called the Opportunity First PAC. Then, of course, he released his memoir in the fall in what has become a prerequisite for presidential contenders.
On releasing his memoir, called “An Unlikely Journey,” Castro hinted broadly to various publications that he was leaning toward launching a presidential run—but he would make a final determination following the November election. And while Democrats nationally did well last week, retaking control of the U.S. House and improving their numbers in state legislatures and governors’ offices, something happened that Castro couldn’t have planned: Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Beto O’Rourke emerged as the national darling of Texas and completely overshadowed Castro.
Now, instead of any call for Julián for president, the political parlor game is focused on the man from El Paso, whence O’Rourke hails, instead of the man from San Antonio. “Beto complicates things for Julián. But it’s also an opportunity,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime, Texas-based Republican political consultant who has advised George W. Bush as well as the late John McCain in their runs for president.
The Beto factor must have been a consideration as Castro convened a strategy session in a San Antonio law office this week with about fifteen political advisers, including his brother U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Henry Cisneros, another former San Antonio mayor turned presidential cabinet member turned national aspirant. While details of the discussion remain closely held, the collective advice of the group is that Julián should continue down the path toward a presidential run.
But the looming question for the short term is how Castro can leverage the Democratic momentum—especially that which was demonstrated by O’Rourke—and emerge from the Senate nominee’s shadow appearing to be a popular co-equal, rather than as a usurper, among a growing Texas Democratic bench of strong candidates?
“Make no mistake, Julián is still a rock star in Democratic politics,” said Democratic political consultant Colin Strother, who worked on an early Joaquin Castro campaign and has known the brothers for nearly twenty years. Strother said Castro should learn from the successes of O’Rourke’s campaign—and one of the biggest lessons is that the electorate likes genuine.
“It’s OK for Julián to be a bold progressive,” Strother said. “It’s OK to refuse PAC money. Beto’s campaign showed us that if you just go out there, be yourself, talk to people and you’ll catch fire.”
McKinnon said Castro’s opportunity lies in his willingness to jump into the fray as quickly as possible and announce his candidacy for president. “While Beto—or Handsome Jesus, as my old UT and campaign friend Paul Begala calls him—tries to figure out how to leverage his compelling campaign and historic showing, Julián should get out of the gates fast,” said McKinnon. McKinnon and Begala worked together in Texas campaigns before Begala helped Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992. McKinnon is now the producer of Showtime’s political serial The Circus. He said Castro needs to move fast. “Lay down the marker now. No hesitation. ‘I’m running. And running to win.’”
Another longtime Democratic consultant, speaking on background, said a quick Castro candidacy will also address an evolving concern about the Castro brothers: “One thing they’re going to have to work on is people are starting to think that they’re never going to pull the trigger,” the consultant said. The consultant noted Joaquin Castro flirting with the notion of running for the U.S. Senate or Texas attorney general or Julián once flirting with a run for governor.
Some people call a quick jump into a race the LBJ strategy. When Lyndon Johnson was considering his first run for Congress in 1937 following the death of U.S. Representative James Buchanan, word got out that Buchanan’s wife would run to fill her husband’s term. But Johnson’s father urged his son to announce his candidacy to succeed Buchanan immediately; it would scare Buchanan’s wife off, the father told Johnson. And indeed it did.
McKinnon said that moving quickly also allows Castro to gracefully use O’Rourke’s words against O’Rourke. “Beto said he won’t run for president,” McKinnon said. “Though he is certainly being encouraged by a lot of people to reconsider. Julián should say, ‘Beto, I take you at your word. So, I’m gonna carry the flag out of Texas.’”
Like Strother, McKinnon believes Castro can leverage O’Rourke’s success coming out the gate. “Julián can and should build on what Beto has achieved,” McKinnon said. “But he should also demonstrate what he can add to the equation. Emotion can get you fans and raise money, but smart and deliberative strategy ultimately wins the game.”