Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images
‘They can fight each other over a scrap, or they can go after one of the big dogs for the whole steak.’
Two of Texas’ biggest Democratic stars will take the debate stage Thursday in their home state but they’ll be far from the center of attention. Literally.
Beto O’Rourke, the former El Paso congressman, and Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, will stand side by side in Houston on the far end of the debate stage, a reflection of their low standing in presidential polls.Story Continued Below
It’s a bit of a muted homecoming for the state’s prized Democratic prospects, both of whom entered the primary accompanied by high expectations but have since failed to build momentum.
“I really like the guys. I mean, they’re terrific,” said Mike Collier, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in Texas in 2018 and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday. “But the presidency is the most important job in the world, and there are an awful lot of Texans who view it the way I view it, which is that we want somebody who’s a seasoned hand.”
O’Rourke, who eclipsed Castro last year during his near-miss Senate run against Republican Ted Cruz, has had the more humbling experience. He entered the race in March amid much fanfare only to see his campaign fade. Castro, the only Latino candidate in the sprawling field, is still struggling to break out of the low single digits in polls.
Both find themselves in essentially the same position in the debate: high enough in polling and fundraising to qualify for the debates, but in desperate need of a breakout moment.
“I thought either or both of them could gain traction nationally, and I certainly thought that traction that they gained nationally would have put them in position to take the best advantage of a homecoming debate,” said Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz in the Senate race.Their priority now, he said, is just to “stay alive.”
“The first rule of being a shark: Stay moving, and find something to eat,” Lippincott said. “They have to stay relevant, they have to stay in the discussion, and they have to hope that that is enough to give them enough fundraising, give enough money to their campaigns to keep moving.”
The debate’s Texas backdrop could help. Recent shootings in Odessa, Midland and El Paso — O’Rourke’s hometown — offer an opportunity to talk about gun safety in personal terms. The border state’s demography and experience with immigration issues provide an opening to seize on a hot-button campaign issue that both candidates are uniquely qualified to speak about.
“I think both the Texans are at least potentially in a pretty good position to be able to capitalize on whatever opportunities may come their way on Thursday night because [the debate] is in Texas and there’s some built-in enthusiasm for the hometown team and because both of these guys are pretty quick thinkers on their feet,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant in Texas. “They at least have the capacity to jump into a void if one appears.”
The Houston debate will mark the first time the two Texans will share a stage since Castro memorably castigated O’Rourke over immigration policy in the June debate in Miami, an encounter that suggested a frosty relationship.
That confrontation came on the heels of several other passive-aggressive moves between the hopefuls that have captured attention. Castro’s campaign sent out a news release of his Texas endorsements on the same morning O’Rourke launched his candidacy; O’Rourke’s team once sent out a press release pointedly boasting of a 25-point polling lead over “fellow Texan” Castro in the Lone Star State.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, downplayed any friction between the two as a “sibling rivalry.”
“They don’t normally get into a competitive situation because they live in totally different parts of the state and they’ve followed different paths towards where they’re headed in terms of their political careers,” Hinojosa said.
Neither is dominant in their home state: Biden narrowly edges out O’Rourke for the most support in Texas, according to a Univision poll released Tuesday, with Biden leading with 20 percent support to O’Rourke’s 19 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders is third with 13 percent support, and Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are tied at fourth at 12 percent.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll released Wednesday showed Biden as the clear front-runner in Texas with support from 26 percent of potential Democratic primary voters, followed by Warren with 18 percent, O’Rourke with 14 percent, and Sanders with 12 percent. Castro finished near the bottom with 3 percent.
With both O’Rourke and Castro struggling to break through in national polls, there appears to be little incentive for either O’Rourke or Castro to skirmish on Thursday.
“They can fight each other over a scrap, or they can go after one of the big dogs for the whole steak,” said Colin Strother, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas. “It makes far more sense for them to tag team and go after Bernie [Sanders] or Warren or Biden and try to make a significant dent.”
Still, Strother said: “I don’t see them in fundamentally poor positions … I still think there’s plenty of time for anyone to catch fire.”