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Opinion | Why Julián Castro Couldn’t Finish First With Latinos

On Tuesday night Julián Castro appeared at a rally in Brooklyn alongside Elizabeth Warren to express support for her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s no surprise that in a field of candidates that’s grown increasingly male and white, he opted to throw his support behind the leading female candidate.

When Mr. Castro ended his campaign last week, just a little under a year after he made a bilingual announcement in his hometown San Antonio with mariachis, accent-marked campaign signs and a Selena soundtrack, it confirmed that Latino voters have never been a unified voting bloc.

He was the first candidate to release an immigration plan, that offered a road map for decriminalizing immigration. His bold substantive plan was a departure for a party that has engendered mistrust and skepticism about whether traditional Democrats are serious advocates for the Latino community.

And yet, he never really had a shot. Mr. Castro ran a small campaign that lagged behind in fund-raising and failed to get traction. The former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Barack Obama’s administration consistently trailed Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and other candidates, including Ms. Warren, in recent Latino voter polls.

The question is why?

Mr. Castro never capitalized early on the progressive political winds of the Latino community. He was a solid Obama Democrat who was a rising star in the party and a potential vice-presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he finally decided to enter the race last January, many questioned if this moderate Latino candidate could hold his own in the era of Donald Trump.

If he were to have any shot at the presidency, Mr. Castro needed to finish first with Latinos. But he never quite got there, even though he tried — as his initial debate performances and early threshold polling would indicate. Even in August, when Mr. Castro released a passionate ad that blamed Mr. Trump for inciting racism that led to the El Paso shooting in August. The only Latino candidate in a post-El Paso massacre world couldn’t even get significant support from his own community.

At a time when the 2018 midterms saw higher turnouts for Latino voters, as well as the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mr. Castro seemed to distance himself from his mother’s Chicana activist past. He eventually remade his image as a champion for the marginalized, but by then it was too late. Polling showed that Mr. Sanders had captured that progressive part of the Latino electorate.

Mr. Castro might have been the only Latino candidate running in 2020, and that indeed brought a sense of pride to some in the community, but it didn’t guarantee Latino support. He failed to find his footing with Latino-Americans perhaps in part because they saw him as a holdover from the Obama administration. Many still remember Mr. Obama’s “deporter-in-chief” legacy and his promises to pass immigration reform in 2008, only to see it never happen.

The political media didn’t take Mr. Castro seriously. In an interview last April, Bill Maher seemed to mock Mr. Castro’s wisdom in putting forth his immigration platform. “It seems like [immigration is] the obvious issue for you,” Mr. Maher said. Then there was the issue of his inability to speak Spanish. In the end, his campaign stalled after he was accused of being difficult and ageist, when he questioned Mr. Biden’s memory during the third Democratic debate in September.

The 2020 campaign kicked off with the most diverse field of candidates in the history of the country. But it seems that this year’s Democratic contest was never about changing demographics, but rather electability. It now appears that only rich, white millionaires are up to the task.

Fresh off of Monday’s endorsement of Ms. Warren, the duo stood on a stage on Tuesday night, and took a double selfie as the crowd cheered them on. It was unclear whether Democratic voters were witnessing a possible 2020 ticket or just another endorsement that will go nowhere. Either way it’s clear that Mr. Castro is not quite done campaigning, even if not for himself.

In 2020, Democrats will continue to obsess about the electability question — demographics be damned. Though he failed to consolidate the Latino vote, Mr. Castro was important as a candidate even if we can’t see it now. His bid for President came at a critical moment in our country’s history. It was powerful to see ourselves reflected in a candidate on a presidential debate stage. He may not have been the right candidate this time, but his campaign is no doubt a sign of what’s to come.

Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77), a co-host of the In The Thick political podcast, is the founder of Latino Rebels.

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