Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro (left) and former Congressman Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) have both been seen as possible front runner to declare candidacy for President in 2020.
(left) U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-El Paso) will be taking the Democratic Party debate stage Tuesday night and Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro will get his chance Wednesday on CNN. Credit: Composite / San Antonio Report File Photos

Toward the end of the final panel at the Rivard Report’s CityFest on Saturday, a member of the audience asked former San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro if he was going to run for president. He said he would make up his mind by the end of the year.

Four weeks ago, Castro told Rolling Stone he was “likely to do it.” The story was picked up by a number of national outlets. But since that time, the political news out of Texas has been all about Beto O’Rourke.

The 46-year-old El Paso congressman may have lost his race to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, but the close margin only spurred more talk about his potential as a Democratic presidential candidate next year.

A quick Google search of “Beto for president” turned up loads of stories touting that possibility in the days since O’Rourke’s election loss. Among them: NBC, CNN, Newsweek, Politico, The Hill, USA Today, and even the British Independent and Guardian newspapers.

Gamblers on the British website Betfair moved O’Rourke’s odds for winning the presidency from 400-1 on Election Day to 10-1 Wednesday morning. That put him behind only California’s U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris at 8-1.

None of this was affected by O’Rourke’s categorical denial that there is any chance of his making a presidential run.

If I’m Julián Castro, I don’t know what to make of the hoopla over Beto, other than to hope – unlike a number of members of the national commentariat – that O’Rourke continues to resist temptation.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled that O’Rourke demonstrated that the possibility of turning Texas purple is no longer a lovely chimera. On the other hand, do I really want to be the Texan who tries to follow Beto’s act? How do I come across as that cool, that energetic, and that positive? Who among us can expect to beat a record of raising $69 million while eschewing PAC money and garnering contributions from more than 800,000 individuals?

Of course, history doesn’t offer either one of them a clear path to the presidency. Neither a mayor’s office nor a cabinet position has served as a good springboard to high national office. Nor does losing your most recent race.

The last former mayor to be elected president was Calvin Coolidge. But he subsequently served as governor of Massachusetts and was vice president when Warren Harding died in 1923. He won one term as the incumbent.

The last cabinet member to become president was Herbert Hoover, who served as Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge and Harding. He was elected 90 years ago.

Although a couple of HUD secretaries – George Romney and Jack Kemp – sought presidential nominations, neither succeeded. Only two former HUD secretaries have won higher elected office. Andrew Cuomo became governor of New York in 2011, though the larger factor may have been that his father, Mario, had dominated New York politics as a three-term governor in the 1980s and 1990s.

Secretary Mel Martínez was elected senator from Florida in 2004, a year after serving as HUD secretary under George W. Bush. He resigned before the end of his term.

Turning to O’Rourke, there is precedent for a congressman (actually a former congressman) becoming president after losing a very close senate race to an incumbent. Abraham Lincoln lost to U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas after their historic debates in 1858 and was elected president two years later. Richard Nixon also won after losing a governor’s race, but he had previously been vice president.

A potentially better path for O’Rourke has been laid out by an expert who was quite recently a skeptic. University of Texas at Austin political science professor James Henson is director of the Texas Politics Project and runs a poll jointly sponsored by the Texas Tribune.

In early October, Henson wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Why Beto O’Rourke Won’t Beat Ted Cruz in Texas.” Henson’s late October poll put O’Rourke six points behind. He argued that only the most optimistic projections even pulled O’Rourke close, and concluded the piece with this assessment, referring to Cruz’s increasingly negative campaign: “If there is a whiff of desperation to Cruz’s strategy, it may be an indicator that the comfortable margins of victory assumed by Republicans for the last decade are eroding, albeit much more slowly, and less decisively, than Democrats hope.”

On Friday, Henson struck a different tone. His headline in the Washington Post:

“Beto O’Rourke should run for Senate in 2020. He could win.” His major points:

  • Sen. John Cornyn is “one of the least popular top-tier statewide officials in Texas.” Before a boost from the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and the election environment, Cornyn’s “positive job approval among Republicans was only 46 percent, 28 percentage points lower than Cruz’s, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.”
  • Democratic turnout in the presidential election year will be even greater than it was this year.
  • If O’Rourke chooses not to run, “the assets Democrats gained this year may well dissipate.”

To these I would add one more. With O’Rourke’s demonstrated strength at pulling out unlikely voters, the national Democratic Party and the Democratic presidential candidate are more likely to see the state as a battleground and not an ATM, putting cash into the state rather than just taking it out as has been the custom.

With Texas’ 38 electoral college votes second only to California and guaranteed to grow after the 2020 census, the path to the presidency for a Republican without Texas gets significantly narrower.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.