Julian Castro plans to win Nevada one pupuseria at a time.
Well, make that one pupuseria, some house parties, a trip through the storm drains beneath Las Vegas and a swing through rural Nevada, for good measure.
But on this particularly sweltering August evening it was a pupuseria in West Las Vegas where Castro, the sleeves of his white collared shirt rolled up to his elbows, was rallying — and recruiting — the troops. Dozens of supporters and the Castro curious squeezed into red vinyl booths, perched on chairs and otherwise packed themselves into the tiny, barely air conditioned restaurant to hear the former Housing and Urban Development secretary make his pitch for why he, and not one of his 19 Democratic competitors, should be president.
“I don't want to make our country anything again. I don't want to go backward. I want to go forward. I want to make us greater than we've ever been,” Castro said, launching into his biography — raised by a single mother in San Antonio with his twin brother, Joaquin, became a lawyer, ran for City Council and mayor, joined President Barack Obama’s cabinet — and rattling through a list of policy priorities.
At the end of the 20-minute speech, he laid out the roadmap for how he, a candidate who made the September debate stage but is hovering in the low single digits in most polls, plans to take the White House.
“I believe that if we keep working hard — and if you are ambassadors — we're going to continue to grow our movement for change, and then I can do well and become a frontrunner by the time we get to Iowa on Feb. 3, and then go and do well in New Hampshire and win the Nevada caucus on Feb. 22,” Castro said, rising to a crescendo, “and then go on and win my home state of Texas on March 3 and then go and beat Donald Trump on Nov. 3, 2020.”
Castro’s strategy, perhaps more so than any other presidential campaign here, hinges on winning Nevada, the first state in the West to hold a presidential nominating contest and the most diverse of the four early nominating states. Not only has he visited the Silver State more than any other presidential hopeful — his eight visits put him one ahead of Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and self-help author Marianne Williamson — he has also participated in the widest diversity of events while he’s here. Besides the pupuseria, he’s pitched himself at a popular bar in Las Vegas’s arts district, gone to house parties in predominantly Latino East Las Vegas, attended a dinner at the Governor’s Mansion in Carson City, attended the National Basque Festival in Elko and, yes, even toured the storm drains where many of Las Vegas’s homeless live.
If Castro can perform near the top in Iowa and New Hampshire, the thinking is, a win in Nevada could cement frontrunner status and create an unstoppable momentum that will propel him through the Democratic National Convention, onto a debate stage with President Donald Trump and into the White House where he will, as he likes to quip, say “adios” to the current president on Jan. 20, 2021.
Castro, pragmatically, acknowledges that it would be unusual for a candidate polling around 1 or 2 percent to suddenly jump to top-tier status and win the Democratic nomination.
“It’s a legitimate question,” he conceded in a recent interview with The Nevada Independent, but he’s ever the optimist.
“We're in this era now where things change much more quickly, and people's attention span is shorter than it's ever been probably in the history of humankind,” Castro said. “If we were 20 years from now and we were writing about this campaign, it wouldn't surprise me at all if people would write when they looked at all the dynamics ... that it was interesting how people moved up and down in this race.”
“The other thing is that I believe in myself,” he continued. “No matter what's happening out there with other people, I believe in myself, and so, of course, I believe that I can win.”
Winning Nevada will take a combination of nuts-and-bolts organizing — for which, from the accounts of Democratic organizers in the state, Castro’s campaign has laid solid groundwork, despite its small size compared to other campaigns — and a je ne sais quoi moment that kicks the whole machine into action.
“There is plenty of time for us to pick up momentum,” Castro said. “I think that we've actually set a very strong foundation, especially with the progressive base of this party, to be there, right there and to have that breakout moment as it gets closer and closer to Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada.”
That breakout moment was apparently not Thursday night’s debate, where Castro grilled former Vice President Joe Biden on his Obamacare 2.0 policy and accused him of forgetting what he had said minutes earlier, an attack some suggested was ageist. (Castro is 44, and Biden is 76.) Castro went on the defensive Friday, saying that it wasn’t a personal attack on Biden and that he wouldn’t do anything differently.
Supporters are hopeful that the time and energy Castro is investing in Nevada will pay off, either in the form of a breakout moment or, as one put it, a more gradual snowball. The nontraditional campaign stops Castro has made have earned him a lot of goodwill in the progressive community here. But the question is whether that ultimately translates into votes.
“People will say, ‘He’s my favorite, but I think realistically Biden’s going to get it’ or ‘realistically so and so is going to get it,’” said Assemblyman Edgar Flores, who is backing Castro. “As Democrats we have a responsibility not to pick something that seems like the most winnable, we’re going to pick what the country needs most at this time.”
Eight visits in nine months
Ask people what has set Castro’s visits to Nevada apart from the rest so far — aside from simply having made the most of them — and there’s one thing that almost all of them will cite: His decision to travel into Las Vegas’s storm drains during an April visit in an effort to better understand what homelessness looks like.
"It wasn't lost on me or anyone else there that underneath hotels that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars in one of the places that is known around the world as a playground for people around this country and around the world, that you have people who are living in deep poverty, sleeping not even in the street, but in a drainage tunnel,” Castro said at a labor forum the next day.
Not only has no other presidential candidate this cycle or any other cycle gone down into the storm drains, but organizers interviewed for this article struggled to remember the last time any candidate running for any office did.
“I have never seen a politician — whether they’re from Nevada or any other state — actually go into the tunnels. I hardly hear any politicians in politics here in the state mention the tunnels,” said Leo Murrieta, state director for the immigrant and workers' rights organization Make the Road Action. “For me, when I saw that I was incredibly impressed.”
Another unusual campaign stop for Castro: rural, predominantly Latino West Wendover — population 4,265 — on the Nevada-Utah border. West Wendover Mayor Daniel Corona, who has endorsed Castro, said it was the first time a presidential candidate has had an official campaign stop in town.
“Every time, candidates drive right past or they fly into Elko. That’s kind of their rural swing, ‘We made it out to Elko,’ but they don’t take the time to stop at the smaller communities,” Corona said. “Folks in my community are asking me more about Secretary Castro. Folks who may have been supporting other candidates are taking a look at Secretary Castro. If their candidate doesn’t show up, they plan on possibly voting for him.”
It’s a tactic that former President Barack Obama took in the state in 2008. Obama significantly outperformed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Nevada’s rural counties in the caucuses — which helped him to nab more of Nevada’s delegates to the national convention than she did, despite losing the popular vote to Clinton — and visited Elko a total of three times before the November election.
In the world of caucuses, which are a complex numbers game, campaigns can leave no precinct uncanvassed, and, in a close race, that personal touch can make all the difference.
“[Obama] made an effort to get out and meet folks in Nevada, which eventually helped him in the state,” Corona said. “I think for Secretary Castro it’s kind of the same philosophy. You have to show up where people are at. All politics are local, and you really have to localize the politics.”
Castro campaign officials said his visits to less-frequented corners of the state parallel his overall campaign strategy. The former Housing and Urban Development Secretary made Puerto Rico his first campaign stop after announcing his candidacy and has pledged to visit all 50 states as part of his campaign.
“We’ve been really intentional about where we’re going in the state. When we’re in West Wendover, when we’re in Elko, when we’re going through the tunnels beneath the Las Vegas Strip, every event we’ve done in Nevada is to make sure we’re meeting communities where they’re at and making sure that folks feel listened to,” said Kristian Carranza, Castro’s state director.
Latino candidate, Latino organizing
The first time Assemblywoman Selena Torres met Castro, she was 19 and he had come to Las Vegas to speak at a Cesar Chavez Day Festival as HUD secretary.
“To see him on the stage as a 19-year-old kid, I thought, ‘Maybe I could run for office,’” Torres, now 24 and the Legislature’s youngest lawmaker, said. “With a last name like Castro, Torres isn’t too far off.”
Her mom, Tillie Torres, actually had a picture of Castro as HUD secretary — and no other member of Obama’s cabinet — in the classroom at Valley High School where she taught English. She said her students, most of whom were Latino, would ask her who he was, and she would tell them, to their surprise.
“They said, ‘Miss, he's Latino!’” Tillie Torres said.
She said that if the presidential field stays the same as it is now, she will caucus for him in February.
“I've been a Castro supporter for a long long time. I think he has never said or done anything that would lead me to not caucus for him,” she said. “I guess I am still open to the fact that it's very early, and I don't know that he's going to be in that final group. But I'm very hopeful.”
But her daughter, who introduced Castro at the West Las Vegas pupuseria just across the street from the edge of her district, hasn’t decided who she’s backing yet. The Salvadoran-American assemblywoman said she values the nuance Castro has taken in campaigning within the Latino community in Las Vegas — speaking at a Salvadoran restaurant, not just a Mexican one, and spending time in her West Las Vegas community, not just campaigning on the eastside.
“He recognizes Latinos don’t have one single story. The Latino community specifically, those who are the children of immigrants themselves very much identify with that culture of their parents and where they are from,” Torres said. “What it means to be Salvadoran in this country is different than what it means to be Mexican. Secretary Castro understands the need for us to understand those stories and be seated at that table.”
Castro, the second major Latino candidate to run for president, talks often about his roots growing up in a poor Mexican-American neighborhood, and Torres attributes his understanding of the intricacies of the Latino community to the fact that his mom was a Chicana activist. But Castro also doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as the Latino candidate.
“I don't care what your skin color is or where you live in the country, I believe you can see that among these candidates I've been a leader, I've demonstrated leadership in this campaign, and I believe that there are enough people who will see me not just as a Latino candidate, but as something much bigger than that and a potential president for all of them,” Castro said.
His campaign also isn’t taking the fact that their candidate is Latino for granted. The path to victory for all Democratic candidates in Nevada runs through the state’s Latino community, which makes up 29 percent of the state’s population, but Castro will have to work for their vote just like any other candidate.
“We know in Latino communities it’s not just knocking doors, it’s meeting people where they’re at,” Carranza said. “Latinos are not a monolithic group, and Latinos want someone who will fight for them and fight for their issues. I don’t think Latinos will support Secretary Castro by the mere fact that he is Latino. We have to be putting in the work and talking about the issues that are important to the Latino community in Nevada.”
It’s unclear, however, to what extent Castro is resonating with Latino voters on the ground, partly because polling in the state — including that which looks specifically at its Latino community — is few and far between. A Monmouth poll from June put Castro at 2 percent with Latinos in Nevada, far behind Biden (27 percent), Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (19 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (11 percent).
“The Latino community is a savvy community. I'm not taking it for granted. They're not just going to give me their vote because I have a Latino last name. That's how it should be. Everybody, no matter who they are, should make a decision,” Castro said. “It reflects the challenge that I'm working on as a candidate to raise my name ID to offer a strong vision for the future of the country.”
Flores, who hosted Castro at his house in East Las Vegas, thinks that Castro is connecting with the Latino community here in a way that may not yet be registering in the polls.
“The Latino community is used to, you go to church, you go to somebody’s house, you go to a barbecue. Castro has been tuning into that segment of the community. It’s great for the single mom, the hardworking dad, the cautious little brown kid to know that it’s okay for you to be who you are and that elected officials will come to you at your norm,” Flores said. “Those everyday Nevadans, we’re not getting their voices recorded. I just don’t think that the numbers are as the polls say.”
Mayra Salinas, a lawyer who has worked on immigration issues, said that the Castro campaign events she has attended seem designed to get people to be comfortable and to open up.
“He’s doing these very informal seeming events to get people to come out and actually just have a conversation,” Salinas said. “It opens up conversation in a way that if you’re in a very formal setting people might not be brave enough to tell you what they really think.”
Murrieta, whose group has been in contact with several of the presidential campaigns in Nevada, said that Castro’s team has seemed the most interested in talking to his members, as well as the Latino community more broadly.
“At this point there aren’t that many candidates who are being overt and explicit about how they’re going to improve life for Latinx families,” Murrieta said. “I think campaigns like Julian’s are doing the right thing, going into so many corners of the community as possible.”
Five months to go
Castro believes there will be a tipping point in his campaign that will bring not only Latino voters but a broad swath of Democrats his way.
“It's an issue of name ID,” Castro said. “It's also an issue of people believing right now.”
Castro’s supporters aren’t waiting for that tipping point to come, though. They’re focused on convincing voters to commit to Castro now.
Allison Stephens, the DNC committeewoman from Nevada and a superdelegate, said that she met with her Democratic constituents when she was deciding who to endorse, and the name that kept popping up was Castro’s.
“People would say, ‘I have a top pick, but Secretary Castro is number two.’ That seemed to be the consistent thing,” Stephens said. “There were a lot of people who he was their top choice as well.”
Flores framed it as a self-fulfilling prophecy: People are afraid to support someone who they don’t see as being on the “winning team,” but Castro will never be on the “winning team” if people don’t come out and support him.
“It’s absolutely okay for you to say something that — based on polls and data — sounds extraordinary because the numbers aren’t there,” Flores said. “When you say that, you’ll realize that your neighbors are thinking the same thing.”
But not everyone has been quiet about their support for Castro. Progressive leaders have noticed a growing amount of support for him within their circles.
“A lot of the younger leaders that I know of they really like Julian Castro,” said Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “I see them posting about it on their social media. I know there’s a lot of energy around him, and he brings a different perspective being Latino and being from the Southwest.”
Democratic organizers on the ground here also note that his campaign seems to be as frequent a presence out in the community as some of the top-tier candidates’ teams — including Warren’s and Harris’s — even with only three full-time staff members and six paid summer interns. By comparison, Warren has 45 full-time staffers here, and Harris has 28.
“As far as the Castro campaign, I feel like they have been very eager to reach out to folks, not just us but other folks just to let folks know who they are, which is always appreciated,” said Erika Washington, executive director of the progressive nonprofit Make It Work Nevada.
The Castro campaign has plans to add to its Nevada team in the coming months and set up an office in Las Vegas. But Castro acknowledged that his ability to be a significant player in Nevada — as well as Iowa and New Hampshire — depends on his ability to fundraise. He raised $2.8 million in the second quarter of the year, about a tenth of the sum top fundraiser South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was able to amass.
“Of course money plays a role in it, but I believe that we're going to have enough, and our fundraising has gotten stronger each quarter,” Castro said.”Second quarter fundraising was better than our first. This next quarter is going to be better than our second.”
Castro said that he plans to keep fighting in all four of the early nominating states, but that he’s gotten the “strongest response” here and he feels good about his prospects.
“Look at how this race has gone forward just from the beginning. A few months ago people thought that Elizabeth Warren was done. There have been candidates that started off very hot and are no longer that, and some that in the last few months have spiked and then come back down,” Castro said. “Five months is a long time.”