With Julián Castro voted – OK, polled – off the island for Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, virtually everyone but the candidate himself has concluded that his presidential run is over. The race remains exceedingly fluid at the top, but that doesn’t mean Castro has a path to become president.
Gaining a great deal of respect with his campaign – including, with one rather glaring exception, in the previous debates – Castro showed that he was more than just another pretty face. He staked out strong positions and presented well in national media appearances when given a chance.
But for reasons that will be debated in the political postmortems, he never consistently polled more than 2 percent. There is no reason to look for a sudden tsunami to lift his boat to the top tier, so it’s time to assess Castro’s prospects as a potential vice president. It’s that position that some observers thought he was seeking from the beginning – a notion he strenuously and rather convincingly refuted.
The conventional wisdom is that his best shot for a veep slot would be the nomination of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. She would likely want to balance her ticket with a younger man, the thinking goes, and the two have shown good chemistry together. If the presidential candidate is male, he may well seek a female running mate given the importance of women voters in recent elections.
There is precedent for a Massachusetts-Texas Democratic ticket. The first one went well, the second not so much.
In 1960, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy chose Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson as his vice president despite the fact that LBJ had run a sometimes bitter campaign against Kennedy for the nomination and was strongly opposed by then-powerful labor union leaders. Kennedy aide Kenny O’Donnell angrily confronted Kennedy over the choice. Legend has it that JFK’s response was: “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”
LBJ biographer Robert Caro makes the case for a less pithy reason. Kennedy, he said, knew it was going to be a tight election. He had aides run an electoral college analysis that indicated he needed to win Texas in order to defeat Nixon. With LBJ on the ticket, Kennedy carried Texas with just 50.52 percent of the vote. As it turned out, Kennedy didn’t need Texas’s 24 electoral votes, winning the electoral college by 84 votes, despite winning the popular vote by less than 0.2 percent.
In 1988, I cited that precedent in a newspaper column for the long-gone San Antonio Light the day after Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis virtually wrapped up the Democratic nomination.
That Democratic primary in many ways foreshadowed recent primaries. It featured a frontrunner in a sex scandal. Gary Hart, who was married, quit the race shortly after photographs showed him cavorting with a woman on a boat called Monkey Business. A couple of differences to a more recent similar event: The woman was not a porn star, and Christian evangelicals did not immediately forgive him.
Like this year’s Democratic primary, the one in 1988 featured a large number of contenders with considerable diversity and wasn’t decided until relatively late. African American leader Jesse Jackson stunned many by winning contests throughout the deep South as well as Alaska and Michigan.
In my column, I cited the Kennedy-Johnson ticket and argued that Dukakis would do well to select Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, then one of Texas’s most popular politicians. In his first race for the Senate, Bentsen beat George H.W. Bush, Dukakis’s opponent in November.
As it happened, Bentsen and his wife Bee came to the Light that day for an unrelated editorial board meeting. Afterward, Bee asked to meet me. As her husband stood by, she told me she had enjoyed my column that morning. I asked the senator if he had any reaction.
“No comment,” he said. Dukakis later would pick Bentsen over astronaut John Glenn. It didn’t much help.
Bush battered Dukakis that November, winning 53 percent of the national vote and 56 percent in Texas. The three most memorable images from the campaign are Bush’s racist “Willie Horton” ad, Dukakis looking goofy on top of a tank, and Bentsen’s devastating retort when youthful vice-presidential opponent Dan Quayle said in a debate he had as much experience as John Kennedy: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
There are some good arguments for Castro as Warren’s running mate. She has not shown strength with minority groups. Castro may be able to boost Hispanic turnout in key states. He has shown himself to be a hard-working campaigner and he could possibly amplify Hispanic feelings toward President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric.
But if Texas is Warren’s target, she will have to do the heavy lifting herself. Castro might provide a push if the race is close, but Warren will face an uphill battle to make it close. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows her running second in the Texas Democratic primary at 16 percent, 10 points behind Joe Biden. She’s only 0.2 points ahead of Beto O’Rourke, the polls having been conducted before he dropped out.
Castro is at only 3 percent in Texas, not much higher than his national standing. Warren’s position on the left will be a challenge in a state that at this point can only hope to be purple by appealing to suburban moderates, and her pledge to stop fracking immediately will be seen as a threat to the Texas economy.
Castro’s odds of being vice president are a bit higher than being president, but his future will likely take another path. He could well rejoin the cabinet if a Democrat wins the presidency. Otherwise, it may be time for him to return to Texas to climb the ladder here.