The 2020 Democratic presidential primary is shaping up to be as crowded as a Philadelphia light pole.
Potential candidates include Senators Kamala Harris, Kristin Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders; Governors Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo; former Vice President Joe Biden; Facebook founder and extremely natural tractor rider Mark Zuckerberg; and, for an all-too-brief moment, Oprah Winfrey.
On Tuesday, Julián Castro became the first somewhat-well-known Democrat to semi-officially toss his hat into the ring:
“I have every interest in running” in 2020 for president, Castro told NBC News. “Part of the process of figuring out whether I’m going to run is going to listen to folks and feel the temperature” of voters.”
Castro served as mayor of San Antonio from 2009 to 2014, before joining President Barack Obama’s Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Hillary Clinton considered naming him as her running mate in 2016.
“Julián Castro has a very good chance of becoming the first Hispanic president of the United States,” Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, told the New York Times in 2010.
Julián and his twin brother, Joaquin Castro, who has represented Texas’ 20th district in Congress since 2013, have been forecasted as the up-and-coming stars of the Democratic Party for the past eight years. Their mother, Rosie Castro, worked as a political organizer in the Chicano community throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In a way, Julián Castro’s presidential ambitions epitomize the conundrum Democrats face in a post-Obama era. For Democrats, the presidency has become the all-consuming Eye of Sauron for aspiring Democratic leaders, while the states have been treated as the barren wastelands that make up the rest of Mordor.
This is not a critique of Julián Castro’s accomplishments, or his right to run for president (the more the merrier!), but of Democratic “star” politicians’ infatuation with the presidency as the only vehicle for transformative change. (I would be remiss to exclude the national news media’s fixation on the presidency, and the ongoing hollowing out of local newsrooms.)
Unfortunately for many would-be presidential contenders, not very many people ever become president at all, and it remains an open question whether the rapid political career trajectory of Barack Obama is replicable by someone not named Barack Obama. It’s very difficult to make the leap from relative obscurity to the White House (which is part of the reason our current president is a real estate tycoon-turned-reality TV star.)
Due to a number of factors, from boneheaded strategic missteps to simple neglect, Democrats did not manage to make many new “rising stars” over Barack Obama’s two terms. In fact, the party was gutted at the local level, across the country. Between 2009 and 2016, Republicans gained control of more than 1,000 state legislative seats. After the 2010 Tea Party wave, Republican-controlled statehouses were able to redraw congressional maps in their favor, thereby locking in majorities in the House of Representatives for years to come.
Finally, Democratic leaders spent 2016 fretting that their primary process was too competitive, while reassuring themselves that they could count on Republican voters to not vote for the Republican presidential nominee.
Now one of the party’s marquee names is getting ready for a three-year presidential primary race against a dozen other people. Meanwhile, Texas will elect a governor this year. As of last August, there were no serious Democratic candidates. Eight people ended up running in the Democratic primary. Most of them are nobodies, with no serious shots at winning. (There’s a U.S. Senate race in Texas too, this year, but Democrats did manage to find a credible—even exciting—candidate for that one.)
Julián Castro declined to run for governor of Texas probably because he didn’t think he’d win, and if that’s true, it’s because the Texas Democratic Party is broken. Someone like Castro absolutely would do more good for more people by trying to fix or rebuild the Texas Democratic Party than he will hanging around Iowa for the next two years.
Democrats must start approaching unchallenged Congressional and state legislative seats with the same vigor as they do the presidency, or risk further extinction. They need to mount serious challenges to Republican governors in “blue states” and actually start winning statewide offices in theoretically “purple” ones. There are glimmers of hope: a record number of women are running for office in 2018. Groups like Indivisible and the State Innovation Exchange are working to fill state and local seats across the country. And for now, Americans still really hate Donald Trump and dislike the rest of his party.
If Democrats needed to learn one lesson from the 2016 presidential campaign, it was that real, transformative change starts at the bottom up, not the top down.