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Julián Castro can’t catch a break

Part of the problem for Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro is that his campaign is relatively lean compared with other operations. | Chris Carlson/AP Photo

2020 Elections

Castro is often first to lay out detailed policy proposals, but remains mired at the bottom of the polls.

Updated

When Julián Castro released his plan to eliminate lead exposure recently, he met with a familiar fate: He was first in the field of two dozen Democrats to weigh in on the issue, and then his proposal vanished from the news cycle with barely a ripple.

It’s a problem his campaign has been struggling with since he launched his bid in January. Castro has been first to comment on several politically sensitive matters and first to release substantive plans on any number of issues, but he hasn’t often received the credit — or attention — for taking the political risks and getting out ahead of his rivals.

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“Whether it is the situation in Puerto Rico or the crisis in Flint, Castro is bringing attention to overlooked issues and he is doing so with a moral clarity that is forcing the rest of the field to take notice,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice. “He may not be seeing a payoff yet in the polls, but he is definitely tugging at the party’s conscience in a way that is shaping the conversation.”

Yet shaping the conversation isn’t the same as being in the conversation. The former Housing and Urban Development secretary remains mired near the bottom of national polls, hovering around 1 percent.

That’s despite being first out of the gate with a comprehensive immigration proposal. His plan, released in April, quickly drew praise from Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and organizations like Latino Victory and the progressive group Indivisible, which urged other campaigns to read Castro’s plan “and take note.”

Castro was also the first 2020 candidate to endorse launching impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. In that instance, the bulk of the attention for being ahead of the pack on impeachment went to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who tweeted a four-part thread concluding with an explicit call for the House to “initiate impeachment proceedings” several hours after Castro did the same.

Her post was retweeted nearly 31,000 times and received 107,000 likes; Castro’s tweet of the CNN segment with his remarks topped out at under 600 retweets and 1,800 likes.

“Secretary Castro says on two major cable shows that he supports Congress opening impeachment proceedings, and another front-runner gets credit for being first two hours later,” Sawyer Hackett, Castro’s national press secretary, tweeted at the time.

Even when he’s made history, Castro has failed to reap the rewards. His team was first to say in January that it would pay a $ 15 minimum wage in its campaign and support the unionization of its staffers. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was able to claim credit for actually ratifying “the first union contract for a presidential campaign in U.S. history” last month.

The Castro campaign was left to announce the following day that its staffers had formed a union. At least two more campaigns have since followed suit.

Part of the problem is that Castro’s campaign is relatively lean compared with other operations. His communications and digital shop is just a two-person team, which limits the campaign’s ability to get its message out more broadly. And his following on social media is dwarfed by many of his competitors: Castro’s 220,000 Twitter followers is dramatically smaller than his better-known rivals, some of whom have at least a million followers.

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Colin Strother, a Texas Democratic strategist who once advised Castro, expressed optimism that Castro’s fortunes can only trend upward.

“He’s got a long way to go, absolutely,” Strother said. “But there are a lot of other candidates following his lead. He’s doing things they wish they had done first.”

In recent weeks, Castro has gotten some notice — he won coverage from CNN after Hackett tweeted a video of his boss touring flood tunnels in Las Vegas that provide shelter to hundreds of homeless people. Naturally, Castro was the first candidate to direct attention to the situation.

And he later became the first candidate to propose an expansive police reform plan, which he unveiled at MoveOn’s Big Ideas forum earlier this month.

This time, he got some credit — the liberal group Demand Justice began running ads the following week in Nevada and South Carolina thanking him for proposing to reform and restrict “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that typically shields officers from civil lawsuits for police brutality or misusing lethal force, and calling on other candidates to follow his lead.

“Our campaign continues to build momentum as more and more voters hear from Secretary Castro and see he’s leading the field on major issues,” Hackett said. “We’re heading into the debates in the top 10 because Secretary Castro is doing the work and leading with his values — and that progress will only accelerate as more voters learn about his candidacy.”

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