Conspicuously absent from Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate – but still enjoying a flood of fundraising support and trending on Twitter despite not being onstage – Julián Castro appeared Thursday night in front of a sparse crowd at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

The former San Antonio mayor and presidential candidate touched on housing, immigration, and LGBTQIA issues in a wide-ranging town hall hosted by national Latino activism organization Mijente, which previously organized town hall meetings with Democratic nomination front-runners Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“Even though I wasn’t on the debate stage, it’s clear that people noticed,” Castro told reporters after the event. “People across the country have noticed that I’ve had a different voice from anybody else who’s running. I’ve spoken up for the least powerful, for the most marginalized, for people who often need somebody to fight for them. So I believe that we can pick up support, little by little, and build a base to work from as we get through Iowa and get into Super Tuesday.”

The Iowa caucuses will take place in February followed by the New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina nomination processes that month. Texas will hold its Democratic primary on Super Tuesday, March 3, along with 13 other states and American Samoa.

Ahead of the primary season, Mijente has invited the 10 top candidates in the polls to participate in town halls throughout the country. Marisa Franco, director of the organization, founded Mijente with the aim of mobilizing Latinos not just to go to the polls for the 2020 election but to keep Latino populations engaged in the political process beyond this closely watched election cycle.

“Our guiding theory behind these events was what if we actually engage the community sooner and what would it look like for people to see their issues, their dreams, their hopes, their problems reflected on a stage?” Franco said.

Castro, who has been credited with leading the conversation on several issues key to winning the support of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, has not been able to convert the praise he’s received from those on the left or positive media reviews of his prior debate performances into polling gains.

Despite warning in September that his campaign could end should he fail to make the November Democratic debate in Atlanta, Castro’s bid for the nomination remains in effect. Albeit foundering, Castro’s presidential hopes appear to be pinned on winning delegates in Nevada, the third state to go to the polls in the 2020 primaries, and states with more diverse populations than initial states Iowa and New Hampshire.

As the stakes and qualifications for the coming debates continue to rise, Castro will need a significant surge in the polls – his numbers hover around 1 percent nationally – to make the December debate in Los Angeles.

With fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke exiting the race, the speculation has mounted on whether Castro will follow suit. The West San Antonio native’s name has been tipped as a possible running mate for the eventual nominee, and after being shortlisted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 that remains a serious possibility, but candidate Castro remained steadfast Thursday on his chances to surprise the still-crowded Democratic field.

“These presidential races are not just about polling numbers, they’re about expectations,” Castro said. “I plan to beat expectations in Iowa and to use that momentum to get stronger and stronger to get to Super Tuesday and beyond.”

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.