Julián Castro is the lone Latino candidate in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary field. He’s uniquely positioned to capture the support of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has more members than ever and more clout.
Yet so far, he’s come up dry.
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Just one of the 38-member group has publicly endorsed Castro’s bid since his campaign announcement last month — his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who chairs the CHC and also serves as chairman of Julián’s campaign.
It isn’t personal, according to interviews with CHC members. The reluctance so far to commit to Castro, they say, is largely due to home-state loyalties or political caution in a race that’s still taking shape.
Nearly three-quarters of the CHC’s 38 members are concentrated in just four states — California, New Jersey, New York and Texas. And each of those states happens to have an announced or possible presidential contender.
In California, it’s Sen. Kamala Harris. In New Jersey, it’s Sen. Cory Booker. New York has Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. As for Texas, Castro’s home state, there is the prospect that former Rep. Beto O’Rourke might jump in the race.
“It’s sort of just like bad luck because of where the members are,” said Mike Trujillo, a California-based Democratic strategist. “A lot of these members are basically frozen just because of state politics. [They] have to work within their state delegation [and] just need to play nice. It’s hard to play those games when you have someone from your state that’s prominent running.”
Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) endorsed Harris shortly after the senator’s kickoff rally in Oakland last month. Barragán told POLITICO the two discussed issues she cares about, such as environmental justice and racial health disparities, and credited Harris for personally reaching out early.
“She’s somebody I’ve worked with. She’s obviously my senator,” Barragán said. “She’s the kind of person I think we need right now. It meant a lot to me that she reached out early and that she wanted to sit down.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) similarly backed his home-state colleague when Booker launched his White House bid at the beginning of the month. “I can’t think of anyone better to represent and unite the American people. Cory makes a great friend, and will make an even greater president,” Menendez said in a Feb. 1 tweet. “I can’t wait to support you on this journey — I’m all in!”
Then there’s Rep. Filemón Vela (D-Texas). The congressman is unlikely to choose between Castro and O’Rourke, according to a spokeswoman.
“Congressman Vela would support both if they were to run,” said Brenda Rangel, Vela’s district press secretary.
Several CHC members expressed a reluctance to choose sides at such an early stage in the campaign.
“I don’t think there are many members that have made any decisions” on whom to support, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said. “I’m sure he’ll be very well received when he comes and starts talking to us.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who has not endorsed a candidate, said Harris gave him a heads up about her presidential bid but did not press for an endorsement.
“I’m looking forward to sitting down and talking with her, but she didn’t lobby me,” he said.
No one else has reached out to him.
“I’m low on the totem pole, I guess,” he quipped.
Neither Castro brother, in fact, has lobbied CHC members hard for their backing. Julián Castro expressed confidence he’ll eventually have significant support, and said he understood why they wouldn’t take sides at such an early date.
“A lot of people are keeping their powder dry, and why wouldn’t they? First of all, not everybody has gotten into this race,” Castro said in an interview with POLITICO. “At the end of the day, if we fast-forward six months from now, I’m confident I’ll have support from many CHC members and many others well before voting begins a year from now.”
Those members could play an outsize role as surrogates in the states with heavy Hispanic populations where the former San Antonio mayor needs to gain traction — places like Nevada and delegate-rich Texas and California.
In Nevada, support from elected officials like Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a CHC member and rising star who chairs the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, could loom large.
“I think she could play, if she chose to, a dramatically important role in the caucus here,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Nevada.
“There are some incredibly powerful voices that will be able to have a tremendous amount of influence not only in their state but across the Southwest,” he continued. “But the local folks, the folks that are connected to this community most, will have the most impact.”