Last week’s Democratic debate in Atlanta was a showcase for diversity, beginning with the fact there were four female moderators. On stage, the candidates ranged in age from 37 to 78. There were two African American senators, an Asian American congresswoman, and a gay midwestern mayor. There was a former vice president with a lifetime of public service, along with two wealthy entrepreneurs with no government experience. Whether a Minnesota moderate or a Democratic Socialist, almost every American could see themselves reflected in the group onstage.
Almost. Julián Castro — the sole Latino in the 2020 race — was conspicuous in his absence.
That was a loss to viewers and voters, as Castro brings an important perspective to the presidential contest. He has consistently elevated the concerns of Latinos, people of color, and marginalized groups. He has been a strong progressive voice in past debates. As long as his campaign can marshal funds and resources, Castro should remain in the race.
In theory, Castro should have been a much more competitive candidate. He is a graduate of Harvard Law and Stanford, former mayor of San Antonio, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Like Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE, he served in the Obama administration. Like Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE, he favors a single-payer health care system. Like Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE, he swore off PAC money and has released a series of detailed policy plans (he was the first candidate with an immigration plan). Plus, he seemed a potentially ideal foil to a president who has often demonized Latinos and immigrants.
However, Castro has struggled to gain traction with voters, typically registering only 1-2 percent support in national and regional polls. As a result, he did not meet the requirements to be onstage in Atlanta, and it is unlikely that he will clear the higher thresholds for the Dec. 19 debate in Los Angeles.
To Castro’s credit, in past debates he did not shy away from controversial topics. In the June debate, he helped spark discussions on decriminalizing unauthorized entries at the border, reproductive and transgender rights, reparations, and homelessness. In the October debate, he reminded the audience that “Police violence is also gun violence,” and said the names of victims of police shootings. Unlike other lower-tier candidates, a writer for Texas Monthly observed, Castro has stayed “relentlessly focused on issues ignored or downplayed by almost everyone else in the field.” As evidence that Castro’s presence on the stage mattered, consider that, in his absence, the subject of immigration was barely mentioned in the last debate.
Despite not being on stage in Atlanta, Castro still managed to stay relevant. His not being in the debate generated a wave of media coverage, including articles in publications like Esquire, Politico, and Rolling Stone. Latino and progressive groups lamented “Latino erasure” from the nomination process. On debate night, “#JuliánDebates” trended on Twitter, and his campaign had its most successful fundraising night of the month, beating what he raised in the previous two debates. Clearly, he has devoted supporters and followers who want him to keep going.
Castro’s candidacy has mattered to Latinos, who the Pew Center says are on track to be the largest group of nonwhite voters in 2020. He is living proof that a qualified Mexican-American can compete at the highest level of American politics. Still, he has never really been treated as a viable candidate by the mainstream media; they are too busy obsessing over “electability” as it pertains to white voters in the Midwest. Much of Castro’s initial coverage dwelled on the irrelevant question of whether he is fluent in Spanish. As an example of how silly this is, has anyone checked with Andrew YangAndrew YangAndrew Yang planning to launch third party: report Poll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Kings launch voting rights effort honoring John Lewis MORE to see if he speaks Chinese?
Sure, Castro’s jab at Biden in the September debate was probably not his best moment, and his campaign at this point is a long shot. But Castro’s campaign has been a long shot from the beginning. Now, each day that he stays in the race is a victory for vulnerable communities. His visibility is important, especially with hate crimes against Latinos on the rise and many Latinos feeling targeted.
On a pragmatic level, the longer Castro can remain a national figure, the better chance he will have at being in the running for vice president or a possible cabinet position. It also affords him standing to raise questions about the nomination process, like why Iowa and New Hampshire, both overwhelmingly white states, are accorded such immense electoral power in an increasingly diverse America.
There is value, power, and authenticity in Julián Castro’s candidacy, so he should continue his quest for the Democratic nomination. Winning is not always about finishing first — sometimes, it‘s about staying in the game.
Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.