DENISON, Iowa – Only weeks after he ended his presidential bid, Julián Castro stood with his twin brother, Joaquin, at a Mexican restaurant here on a snowy afternoon — two Texans at ease in each other’s company, if not in Iowa’s low winter temperatures, ready to make another pitch.
Since he could not face President Trump in November, Julián Castro told the handful of voters assembled inside El Jimador’s slope-roofed, brick building, let Senator Elizabeth Warren do it.
“I ran for president because we wanted to bring about an America where everyone counts,” he said. “In order to do that, we need to make real improvements in this country, and we need a leader that sees herself as a president for everybody.”
When Castro launched his campaign last year, he strived to become the nation’s first Latino president, running as part of the most racially diverse slate ever of Democratic presidential candidates. But just like most of the other Latino and Black candidates in the crowded field, he dropped out after slamming against barriers — some personal, some deeply structural — to raising money and gaining support in the polls.
Now as Democrats approach the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses with an all-white field of top contenders, Black and Latino politicians have become among the most sought-after endorsers and surrogates on the campaign trail. Their voices are needed to energize Democrats at a time when the party is searching for its direction and hoping to replicate the high voter turnout that won a House Democratic majority in the 2018 midterm elections on the strength of historic gains for candidates who were women and people of color.
“I think the messenger does matter,” said Amanda Renteria, president of Emerge America, which trains women to run for office, and served as national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run. “You have an electorate that really wants to be seen in their candidates.”
Black and Latino elected officials, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, this month rode through Eastern Iowa on a bus to shore up support for former vice president Joe Biden. At the University of Iowa student union in Iowa City on Friday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revved up a crowd of some 800 people for Bernie Sanders, delivering impassioned defenses of his Medicare-for-All plan and bold economic proposals to tackle infrastructure and climate change.
“When we hedge our bets we get more of the same, and the same has not been helping any of us,” she said, calling on supporters to organize. “We have 10 days left.”
It’s imperative for campaigns to have Black, Latino and Asian surrogates who can speak from experience to voters about candidates’ platforms, political analysts said. Their efforts have been particularly crucial to Warren and Sanders, who have been forced off the campaign trail to sit in as jurors in Trump’s impeachment trial.
In Iowa, where voters declare their vote publicly at caucus meetings that can be complicated, confusing and feature one-on-one politicking, surrogates can help educate voters about the process, lure new participants and build excitement for candidates.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, a political science professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said congressional candidates of color, many of them women, put Democrats on notice when they leveraged their popularity and social media savvy into enthusiasm, money and votes during the 2018 midterms. Democratic presidential campaigns have since followed suit, she said, making greater strides to recruit people of color as surrogates, staff members and volunteers.
“What we are seeing is intimately tied to the 2018 election,” Sanbonmatsu said. “It’s a testament to their personal success as candidates that they can bring their supporters along in their presidential race.”
At the Iowa City rally, attendees said they were thrilled to see all-star surrogates behind Sanders who reflected the diversity of their coalition and could counter the image of his supporters as “Bernie Bros." Enaam Al-Quader, 41, who drove from Chicago, where he works as a social caseworker, said he could see their influence in the reactions of the Black and Latino students he works with.
“It’s huge,” he said. “When they see his surrogates, that actually stops them and makes them want to care about Bernie."
Once young, rising political stars from San Antonio, the Castro brothers now have weighty political bona fides and schedules that often keep them apart: While Julián Castro, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was on his grueling run for president, Representative Joaquin Castro was at the frontlines of Trump’s impeachment in the House.
But reunited at El Jimador, where classic cumbias played to a mostly white clientele, the Castros riffed off of each other. The jokes came swiftly over their looks (“he’s the uglier one") and their age (“he was born a minute before me so he’s the older one"). Later seated at a table, the two said they sought to encourage Latinos to participate in the caucuses.
The Latino community is a small but growing part of the Iowa electorate and often disengaged from politics. In Denison alone, Latinos now comprise 48% of the population, according to Census figures.
“This is a place with a lot of potential for more people to come out and caucus,” Julián Castro said.
National Democrats have been in the midst of a reckoning over the dynamics of gender, race and ethnicity in the 2020 campaign.
The party has done an overall better job than Republicans in increasing diversity among its congressional delegation and leadership but structural barriers, such as inequities in donors and funding, have continued to block women and people of color from pursuing the Democratic presidential nomination. And this election, questions over “electability” and who can beat Trump have largely hurt candidates of color, even in their efforts to build support among their own Black and Latino communities.
Some have argued not all can be blamed on structural issues: Some candidates were deemed too liberal by voters, others not liberal enough. Still, the all-white top of the field has spurred questions about the Democratic primary process, like the thresholds for getting on the debate stage.
Castro was among those vocal about the problems before he dropped out. On Wednesday, he doubled down on his concerns over the fairness of the process, saying he spoke with Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and hopes he considers changes.
“After the primary’s over, the DNC has an opportunity to look at how it’s done the primary process, from the thresholds to the order of states,” Castro said.
It has all made Iowans somewhat defensive.
Listening to the Castros at a table nearby, retired teachers Larry and Eilieen Peterson said they were still weighing candidates after California Senator Kamala Harris abruptly dropped out of the race last month. Larry Peterson argued it was unfair to call the caucuses biased against candidates of color, though the electorate is predominantly white, saying they served as the launching pad for Barack Obama to become the nation’s first Black president.
“I think I hold the balance of the republic in my hands because what we do here will most likely lead to the nominee,” said Peterson, now an assistant professor of education at Morningside College in Sioux City. “It’s a crucial decision.”
Some see signs of progress as Democratic surrogates aren’t dividing along racial or ethnic lines in backing candidates, focusing instead on values and policies. The prime example is the four liberal Representatives, all woman of color, who form the so-called “squad.” Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are campaigning for Sanders, while Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley is a top Warren surrogate.
“It’s interesting to me that thus far the surrogates that are of color and women of color are just as varied in who they are supporting,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Black and Latino voters might still be viable voter blocs for Democrats, she added, "but they might not be a bloc for a particular type of Democrat.”
Still, before Ocasio-Cortez took the stage in Iowa City Friday, Barbara Canin, 58, a former English teacher, said she hoped the loss of candidates like Castro and Harris from the race would force Democrats to reevaluate how to even the playing field.
“Change takes a long time, especially change around deeply, ingrained ways of being,” she said.