Julián Castro had a second chance at a first impression in the Democratic presidential debate. Now he has to figure out what to do with it.
Castro, once seen as a rising figure in Democratic politics, was chosen as the keynote speaker at the party convention in 2012 and then as Housing and Urban Development secretary by President Barack Obama. But he had been struggling to gain notice in his 2020 presidential bid.
In Wednesday’s debate, he seized on the issue of immigration with a proposal to rewrite federal law in a way that would decriminalize illegal border crossings. He drove his point home by attacking his fellow Texan, former congressman Beto O’Rourke, for not agreeing with him. O’Rourke said the law had to allow for prosecution of drug dealers and human traffickers.
The moment received widespread notice, and on Thursday, Castro found himself in an unusual place: the object of a flood of media requests. He had seven interviews scheduled, all but one of which were booked after Wednesday night. His campaign said it had seen a “four-digit percentage spike” in fundraising on Wednesday night. Castro said it was “safe to say … we probably had our best fundraising night of the campaign.”
“I had a great night at the debate last night,” Castro said Thursday. “I came into the debate and a lot of people hadn’t heard about me. I think I surprised a lot of people.”
In a crowded field of two dozen candidates, Castro, who is typically soft spoken and understated, has struggled, both in terms of his standing in polls and in fundraising. The test for him going forward is whether Wednesday’s performance will be ephemeral or enduring.
“We’re going to hit the gas in the early states and in my home state of Texas, and I’m confident I’m going to keep getting stronger and stronger,” he said.
He will start that process this weekend in Texas, where O’Rourke has had a much broader base of support than Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio. Castro’s aides say his debate performance should provide needed momentum. He will then head back to the states that are holding early primaries and caucuses, including Iowa, where he said he plans to spend eight or nine days this month.
Castro and O’Rourke are both scheduled to hold events on Friday in Austin, with Castro scheduled to attend a Democratic Party event. Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman says O’Rourke wasn’t invited to the party event — not because they didn’t want him or wanted to avoid having both Democratic presidential hopefuls in the same room, but because organizers simply didn’t know O’Rourke would be in town.
“It came out of the blue,” Rahman said on Thursday when asked about the O’Rourke event had scheduled nearby. “At the end of the day it will be good for both of them.”
The debate offered a focused opportunity for Democrats to draw contrasts with President Donald Trump on his signature issue of a much stricter and punitive immigration policy. The issue took on added urgency after reports last week of unsanitary and dangerous living conditions at immigrant child detention centers and the publication by The Associated Press of a graphic photo showing a father and toddler daughter who died trying to cross the border.
Castro’s immigration plan calls for largely decriminalizing immigration to the U.S., which he says is the only way to stop the current U.S. policy of separating children from their parents at the border.
The friction with O’Rourke, Castro said, was not meant to be personal. “I like him,” Castro said. “We have a policy disagreement here.”
Still, Castro didn’t shy from drawing a contrast with O’Rourke. He told reporters, for instance, that he had a better shot of winning Texas than O’Rourke, who narrowly lost a Senate race to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018.
“If I’m the nominee … we will see unprecedented gains in the Latino vote, that it’ll go through the roof and that will have positive consequences for the Democratic Party like we’ve never seen before,” he said.