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In his presidential campaign, Julián Castro stood out but couldn't break out

Julián Castro speaks to the crowd during a rally at Warehouse Live on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Houston. Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune

On the afternoon of April 19, a day after Robert Mueller released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Julián Castro declared on CNN that it would be "perfectly reasonable" for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Castro was the first Democratic presidential candidate to make such a statement, though just a couple hours later, rival Elizabeth Warren sent out a series of tweets calling for impeachment proceedings — albeit more explicitly — and received most of the credit.

"Elizabeth Warren becomes first 2020 candidate to call for Trump's impeachment," read a Guardian headline at the time.

The episode spoke to perhaps the defining struggle of Castro's campaign: a failure to break through in the crowded field despite often being the first — or among the first — to lay claim to a certain cause or position. Time and time again, Castro found ways to distinguish himself in many areas important to Democratic primary voters — except those areas where it mattered most, especially this election cycle: fundraising and polling.

Acknowledging it "simply isn't our time," Castro ended his campaign Thursday, about two weeks short of when it began a year ago. His admirers — both those supporting him and backing other candidates — bemoaned the loss of the sole Latino candidate whose story and ideas left an indelible imprint on the race.

"We will see the impact of his candidacy for generations to come, particularly in the Latino community," said Mayra Macías, executive director of the Latino Victory, which had endorsed Castro. "He stepped up in the wake of Trump literally launching his campaign attacking Mexican immigrants, attacking Latinos and taking that rhetoric and driving policy. For us, it was so important to support him early on because we knew his story, having him on that stage ... was such an important counter-narrative to everything that Trump is saying about Latinos."

State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, called Castro the "conscience of the entire campaign," saying that he seemed to approach every policy debate with the same rejoinder: "And what about everybody else?"

Still, Castro struggled mightily to make a top-tier campaign out of such plaudits. He consistently polled in the low single digits, and while his fundraising improved quarter-to-quarter, he continued to trail most other candidates in the money race and ended the third quarter with under $700,000 cash on hand, a pittance in presidential politics.

By the end of 2019, Castro was faced with the likelihood of failing to qualify for the third straight debate, and while his campaign believed it had the resources to make it to the first-in-the-nation caucus on Feb. 3 in Iowa, it was less certain of its ability to seriously compete there. Home in San Antonio over the holidays, Castro took stock of his prospects and finalized his decision to call it quits.

Castro's campaign felt it was in a constant struggle against the perception that the only kind of candidate who can beat Trump is one who can appeal to white working-class voters in the Midwestern states that Hillary Clinton notoriously lost — and Castro did not fit the mold. He nonetheless centered his campaign on the argument he could reassemble the diverse coalition that twice elected Barack Obama — and use it to win back not only Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin but also emerging battlegrounds such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas.

Macias also pointed at the media, saying "few mainstream media sources were covering any of the candidates of color that were doing bold things out of the ordinary beyond going to Iowa and New Hampshire." That lack of media attention, she argued, only further fueled doubts about electability.

A long-awaited campaign

Castro's presidential ambition had been long anticipated. Within weeks of leaving Washington in January 2017, he made known he was considering a run, and over the next two years, he began traveling to the early voting states, released a book and launched a PAC, Opportunity First, to lay the groundwork for a bid.

After a month-long exploratory phase, Castro kicked off his campaign Jan. 12 on San Antonio's West Side, delivering a speech that emphasized his Mexican-American heritage and hardscrabble upbringing in the neighborhood. He wasted little time trying to show he would run a different type of campaign, making hurricane-hit Puerto Rico his first campaign destination after the San Antonio launch.

In April that year, Castro took his biggest step yet to stand out, releasing an immigration plan — the most detailed of any candidate at that point — that called for decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings. The idea turned heads in policy circles at the time, but it was not until the first primary debate in June that it got wide attention as Castro, eager to make the proposal a litmus test, grilled fellow Texan Beto O'Rourke on why he didn't support it.

For months, the former El Paso congressman had overshadowed Castro in the race, jumping in to much fanfare in March following his near-miss loss against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz the prior year. Knocking O'Rourke on his heels appeared to presage a long-awaited burst of momentum for Castro, and while he saw an increase in fundraising and media attention, it was only temporary.

Castro nonetheless continued to try to make the most of his time on the debate stage. He confronted Joe Biden in the third debate over health care policy, appearing to question the 77-year-old's memory in a clash that left some fellow Democrats thinking Castro went too far.

In between the debates, Castro persisted in his efforts to lead the field in various ways. In addition to immigration, he was the first candidate to release detailed plans addressing topics like police accountability and indigenous communities. He was the first candidate to not only visit Puerto Rico but also Flint, Michigan, the site of the years-long water crisis. And subsequently, he was the first candidate to issue a proposal to combat lead exposure.

Through it all, Castro's standing in the primary remained stagnant, never cracking 2% in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

The last few months

Castro began openly sounding the alarm about the fate of his candidacy with a fundraising email in late September warning it would be the "end of my campaign" if he did not make the November debate. Roughly a month later, Castro upped the ante, announcing he needed to raise $800,000 in several days to stay in the race — a target that he ultimately hit.

He entered November with a sharpened pitch, declaring at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration that his campaign has "marched to the beat of its own drummer," and was alone in the field for how it has "been speaking up for the most vulnerable folks in this country." The speech came a few hours after O'Rourke abruptly ended his own campaign.

Behind the scenes, though, Castro's campaign was contracting. While the do-or-die fundraising drive had been successful, it had prompted some staffers to start considering other jobs, and in early November, Castro laid off his teams in South Carolina and New Hampshire as the campaign said it was zeroing in on three states: Iowa, Nevada and Texas.

As expected, Castro did not qualify the November debate, but he insisted he would press forward despite his earlier threat to drop out. He said he was "fighting" to make it to Iowa.

A few days before missing the debate, though, came arguably the most consequential development of Castro's final weeks as a candidate. During a Nov. 10 appearance on MSNBC, Castro called for changing the order of the early voting states, saying the first two states — overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire — do not represent the country as a whole.

The proclamation drew pushback from party leaders in the two states, which are famously defensive of their first-in-the-nation status, but activists praised Castro for speaking an uncomfortable truth, even if it came in the twilight of a campaign in decline. Castro even picked up a few new endorsements in the Hawkeye State, including Kyla Paterson, chair of the Stonewall Caucus of the Iowa Democratic Party.

"I was looking for somebody who was talking about the issues of the Iowa caucus," said Paterson, who had supported Castro rival Kirsten Gillibrand until she ended her campaign in August. "We've had these issues for decades, but one of the things that I definitely think that pulled me toward Castro was that he was talking about how Iowa does not represent the party — and he's right. Iowa does not. Yes, Iowa does a good job of vetting candidates, but it's definitely skewed ... through the mindset of a white voter."

Paterson, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they," said they may have "overestimated" Castro's chances in Iowa at that point, but at the end of the day, they endorsed him because they thought he best represented their values above everything else.

Castro did not entirely lose momentum in December. Two days after California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California dropped out of the race, Castro announced that he raised over $360,000, seizing on growing discontent about the top tier of candidates remaining dominated by white people.

Yet the expectations surrounding Castro were becoming lower than ever. The deadline to qualify for the December debate came and went with very little suspense: Castro would not be on the stage — again.

Castro's future

There are at least a few possible paths for Castro's political future now.

In the near term, his name will remain on the ballot for Texas' March 3 primary because the filing deadline — and subsequent deadline to withdraw — was in early December. The timeline also means Castro cannot run for any other office this cycle in the state, such as U.S. Senate.

In the Texas presidential primary, Castro had never polled nearly as high as O'Rourke did, but he had accrued a sizable endorsement list including dozens of state lawmakers, San Antonio elected officials and other prominent Democrats who switched over after O'Rourke dropped out. One of those O'Rourke-to-Castro endorsers, state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said he had already gotten calls from two campaigns — Biden's and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's — after Castro announced his withdrawal Thursday morning.

Along with Warren, Biden and Bloomberg appear to making the most serious play for Texas.

"Texas is wide open and we need to start hearing from candidates and they need to spend the time and resources here," Blanco said. "Texas is a big state with lots of delegates and I think the future is Texas."

It remains to be seen if Castro will endorse before the Texas primary — or at all.

But he has built a particularly friendly relationship with Warren and could land on her running-mate shortlist if she is the nominee, though he dismissed such speculation while he was running. Warren was nonetheless among the first of Castro's rivals to tweet a tribute to him Thursday morning, including a picture of the two embracing after crossing paths a few months ago in Iowa.

'"You made this race stronger," she said, addressing Castro, "and you will continue to be a leader in our party and our country for many years to come."

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