Presidential candidate Julián Castro greets supporters during his announcement event at Plaza Guadalupe in San Antonio's Westside.
Julián Castro greets supporters at Plaza Guadalupe on San Antonio's West Side during his Jan. 12 announcement that he was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

DENISON, Iowa — If Iowans are going to remember Julián Castro, it may be because of his attention to places like this.

This western Iowa city is the seat of Crawford County, which has the state’s biggest Hispanic population by percentage — and it is represented by the state’s only remaining Republican congressman: U.S. Rep. Steve King, a lightning rod for his incendiary rhetoric on race and immigration. It was against that backdrop that Castro brought greetings to a group of about a half dozen locals inside Cronk’s Cafe here Friday morning.

“Not just in blue areas,” the former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor said of his travels, but also in areas less frequented by Democrats.

Castro, who is starting the White House race as a decisive underdog, may need a wider audience if he is going to have an impact here, but it was a start — and it played right into an early emphasis he has placed on going where other Democrats have not. He arrived Thursday in the Hawkeye State — his first trip there as a declared candidate — on the heels of his promise to visit all 50 states in his 2020 bid, and while in Iowa, his campaign finalized trips this week to Idaho and Utah to start making good on the pledge.

To be sure, Castro is not the only 2020 candidate already setting his sights beyond the traditional few early voting states. Others have already made trips to states whose nominating contests are deeper into the calendar — like Texas, where New York U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stumped for two days this week. And if Castro’s fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, runs for president, he would very likely prioritize a far-reaching travel schedule, much like he did during his U.S. Senate run last year, when he visited all 254 Texas counties.

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro meets with a group of people in Denison, Iowa, on Feb. 22, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro meets with a group of people in Denison, Iowa, on Feb. 22, 2019.
Patrick Svitek/The Texas Tribune

Still, Castro got a head start in the geography primary when he went to Puerto Rico last month as his first trip after announcing his campaign, seeking to show his commitment to the U.S. territory that President Donald Trump has been criticized for neglecting after Hurricane Maria. There was a similar symbolism to his travels through west and northwest Iowa, and it left an impression with local activists along the way, many of them still reeling from King’s latest racist comments.

“I just think it’s really important that Julián, as a candidate of color, is willing to come to our district — immediately,” said Brigham Hoegh, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Audubon County, which Castro visited on Thursday evening. “He could’ve written us off and said, ‘I’ll spend time in Des Moines and Iowa City’ and whatnot, but he came here, right away.”

On Saturday morning, Castro visited Storm Lake, another Iowa city with a burgeoning Hispanic population. It is in Buena Vista County in northwest Iowa, which like Crawford County, is more than 25 percent Latino.

“These are incredibly vibrant communities,” said Peter Leo, a former Iowa House candidate who joined Castro on Friday in Carroll and Denison. “They would be dead without not just the Latino immigrants, but immigrants in general. They would be dead.”

Speaking later in his Iowa trip, Castro reflected on Storm Lake as a “great example of a place where people of different backgrounds can work together and live together.”

The bulk of Castro’s trip took him through Iowa’s 4th Congressional District — home to King, whose long history of inflammatory comments is getting more attention than ever. There were reminders of King at many of the stops, whether it was his 2018 Democratic opponent, J.D. Scholten, attending some of the same events Castro went to or a local party official admitting to Castro in Denison that it can be hard to convince Democrats in the conservative district that their vote counts.

“It really is a tough sell here,” said the official, Beth Ann Vogt. “We live in Steve King country.”

To Democrats, “the 4th District is one that traditionally is the ‘other’ district, quote unquote,” added Scholten, who Castro endorsed and visited Iowa to stump for last year. “Especially in Iowa, we’ve got the three other ones are all Democrats, and so for years people have just ignored this district and abandoned this district.”

Castro has his own history with King, who has more than once targeted the presidential candidate and his brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, questioning their Hispanic identities. Julián Castro had a chance encounter with King at a media outlet shortly after arriving in Iowa on Thursday, and the two briefly chatted, according to the White House hopeful.

“We had a very pleasant two-minute conversation about nothing,” Castro told an audience Saturday evening in Ames. “But it was a reminder to me that he does not represent the values of Iowa and just know that everybody outside of Iowa knows that.”

Castro made his Iowa debut as he continues to barely register in most polls, and throughout the swing, he openly acknowledged that he has a long way to go. Republicans are ignoring him, and the Iowa GOP, which has been blasting out statements on other Democrats’ trip to the state, did not bother with Castro this weekend.

While confident in his ability to ultimately break through, Castro was at times candid about his shortcomings as a candidate. During a town hall Thursday afternoon in Des Moines, he volunteered that he does not have a lot of foreign policy experience but has at least “had the opportunity to understand” the importance of U.S. relationships around the world.

“Unlike this president, I take this stuff seriously,” Castro said hours later at another stop where his foreign policy credentials also came up.

Castro traveled the state pitching a progressive wish list of things like Medicare for all, tuition-free college and a Green New Deal. Often unprompted, he defended the ideas as not as radical as the opposition makes them seem and promised to eventually give voters more details, including how to pay for them. Asked in Des Moines when he would roll out a Medicare for all plan in particular, Castro gave reporters a broad time frame — “before the Iowa caucus.”

Those issues are dominating the national debate, though in Iowa, he also had an answer ready to go on a more local issue: ethanol, the corn-based biofuel that is key to Iowa’s farm economy.

“I do think there’s a role for ethanol,” Castro said when confronted with an ethanol critic in Des Moines. “I do support, of course, additional investments in renewable energy. … I don’t believe that that’s an either-or right now.”

At multiple stops, Castro also faced questions about how he stands out in what is shaping up to be a crowded Democratic field. Echoing previous comments, Castro often responded by branding himself the “antithesis” to Trump, touting his executive experience as housing secretary and mayor, and emphasizing the generational change he would represent.

The response was good enough for one questioner in Des Moines, retiree Nancy Bobo, who said two things stuck with her: “his looking forward to the future and his integrity and the role model that he had in Barack Obama and serving in that administration because they had the very highest standard.”

Bobo was not the only Iowan who had the former president on her mind while sizing up Castro. One audience member in Des Moines said he considered Castro a “Latino Obama,” which Castro responded by making clear he believes the president is in a league of his own.

Other Iowans seemed to still be mulling what makes Castro unique. After seeing Castro on Friday morning in Carroll, retiree June McGowan said she lived in San Antonio while he was mayor and always liked him but when asked what he offers that other candidates do not, she said she did not know. Her husband, Jerry, jumped in with an answer similar to Bobo’s, suggesting Castro’s “integrity” distinguished him.

If Castro was looking to leave more of an impression, it may have been found in his northwest Iowa itinerary.

“It’s a smart place to campaign,” Leo said. “It sends a good message. He’s hitting the right notes on reaching out to people, listening to everybody.”

Castro wrapped up his Iowa swing on Saturday night in Ames, where he attended the Story County Democrats Soup Supper with another 2020 candidate, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, and a potential contender, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Castro’s campaign also punctuated the trip by announcing its top staffers in Iowa, naming Cynthia Sebian-Lander as state director and Marika Bresler as organizing director there. Sebian-Lander most recently was the campaign manager for Deidre DeJear, the unsuccessful candidate last year for Iowa secretary of the state, while Bresler’s latest experience was as deputy campaign manager for Colin Allred, who unseated U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, in November.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders.