When 44-year-old Julián Castro officially launched his presidential campaign Saturday, he became one of the youngest candidates in the prospective 2020 Democratic field — and the first, and likely only, Latino candidate.
That could give Castro an edge in a key early presidential state — Nevada has the highest percentage of Hispanic voters of the four early voting states. And it’s likewise an asset in California, which stands to cast a long shadow over the Democratic presidential primary now that its primary has been moved forward to early March.
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Together, the former San Antonio mayor and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s youth and background offer a profile built to appeal to the Democratic Party’s diverse and ascendant Obama coalition.
His Mexican American heritage was front and center Saturday — he was introduced by his mother, Rosie Castro, and spoke to a crowd of overwhelmingly Hispanic supporters near where he grew up on San Antonio’s Westside, a historic area largely comprised of Hispanics and African-Americans.
He took a public bus here to Plaza Guadalupe with his twin brother and campaign chairman, Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), and streamed it live on Facebook. His campaign paused its track list as a mariachi band performed for supporters, and Grammy-award-winning Tejano artist Roger Velasquez sang the national anthem.
Castro announced his candidacy in English and Spanish. “When my grandmother got here almost a hundred years ago,” he said, “I’m sure she never could have imagined that just two generations later, one of her grandsons would be serving as a member of the United States Congress and the other would be standing with you here today to say these words: I am a candidate for President of the United States of America.”
As a longshot who lacks widespread name recognition or an extensive campaign infrastructure, Castro will need every advantage he can get. That helps explain why he chose to hold his formal presidential announcement event before anyone else this year.
Saturday’s festivities were the second part of his campaign launch — Castro kicked off his bid in early December, announcing his intentions via Twitter with a biographical video and the formation of an exploratory committee.
“You’ll always have front-runners. The bigger challenge might be a giant field,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist. “Candidates who don’t start out with name identification or a giant campaign account, they have to figure out a way to distinguish themselves among all the lesser-known candidates.”
It’s never been a problem for him in the past. Castro in 2001 became the youngest person ever elected to the San Antonio City Council; later, he became the youngest person in the Obama administration Cabinet at the age of 39. In between, he mounted an unsuccessful bid for San Antonio mayor in 2005 before winning the post in 2009.
His first campaign stop as a presidential candidate will be in Puerto Rico, where Castro will address the Latino Victory Fund, visit with residents still struggling to recover from hurricane damage and visit recovery sites with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. He will also head to New Hampshire next week for an event on Tuesday and “Politics & Eggs” at St. Anselm’s Institute of Politics on Wednesday.
“His biggest asset is he’s a policy wonk. I mean, this guy is really, really smart,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. “He knows a lot about a lot of issues. He is extremely articulate. He’s got really good ideas and he’s able to put those ideas in terms where ordinary Americans can understand them and I think what that does is puts him in the situation where he is best, not only talking to large crowds but talking to smaller crowds where he can answer questions and articulate and share his ideas on his vision for America.”
Castro’s long been considered one of the party’s rising stars, leading to his delivery of a keynote address at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He also made the short list of candidates to be Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.
“At that time, I think there was a widespread feeling that this guy’s got something special,” recalled Brian Fallon, who served as Clinton’s national press secretary in 2016. “There was a natural feeling within the party that this guy was capable of big things, but in a state like Texas it might be hard to climb the ladder in the way that politicians in other states might be able to. Once you reach heights that lofty that early, there’s only so many more places to go.”
Yet in a crowded Democratic field that could feature some of the party’s leading lights and best-known candidates — among them, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), as well as 2016 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden — Castro registers as an asterisk in the early polls, if at all.
That’s led to speculation that the ambitious Castro is playing the long game, with an eye toward ending up as the running mate for the eventual nominee.
“I think he’s serious about running for the top job, but if he didn’t end up emerging as the nominee, I think he’s bound to be on anybody’s short list again and probably will be,” Fallon said. “He’s bound to be in the mix for things for a long time. I just think he’s gonna be somebody that’s gonna be a big personality in the Democratic Party for a long time, regardless, one way or the other.”
Castro, who released his memoir, “An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream,” in October, has already been working the early states, with recent trips to Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
His campaign intends to connect him with voters there in small gatherings — situations he’s comfortable in and where he excels. In an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, Castro called for investments in education, universal pre-K, universal higher education and Medicare for All. He also expressed support for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) tax increase on the wealthy, saying he supports people at the top paying their fair share.
“I have experience actually running one of these federal agencies, being in charge of folks and making things work, also being mayor of a city that is one of the most diverse cities, as I said, in the United States, and then really in a fundamental way, represents the diverse future of America,” Castro said when asked what distinguishes him from the other potential candidates in what figures to be a sprawling field.
That connection to the Obama administration — and nod to the party’s diversity — is shaping up to be front and center in his message. It’s also key to his political fortunes since his success will likely hinge on his ability to connect with the younger voters and Hispanics who are a critical component of the coalition.
Castro — whose twin brother Joaquín Castro chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — has already been quietly laying the groundwork.
Earlier this week, Castro met with Latino leaders in Las Vegas. And he also recently assembled a group of Latino leaders in Washington to talk about his 2020 campaign, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.