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McNeely: O'Rourke and Castro races are about more than president

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Texans, get ready for an interesting year in politics.

Beto O’Rourke finally let the other shoe drop and announced he is indeed running for president. With much fanfare, the former three-term El Paso congressman confirmed what everyone had expected was going to happen.

That makes two Texans vying for the Democratic nomination. The other is Julian Castro, the Castro twin best known as San Antonio’s former mayor and President Barack Obama’s final secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

O’Rourke, 46, is well-known because of his grassroots campaign, in all of Texas’s 254 counties, to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year.

He failed by a scant 2.6 percent. But O’Rourke’s campaign, which raised and spent $80 million — an all-time record fundraising haul for U.S. Senate races, all from small donors — is credited with boosting Democratic turnout enough to help Democrats gain a dozen seats in the Texas House. Democrats also unseated Republican congressmen in Dallas and Houston.

Democrats in the Texas House, outnumbered 95-55 by Republicans last session, trimmed their deficit to 83-67.

One legislative observer speculated that if O’Rourke does make it onto the national Democratic ticket, either for president or vice president, he could repeat the coattails effect enough in Texas to bring the additional nine seats needed to give the Democrats a 76-74 edge.

When he decided not to waste his Texas momentum to run against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, O’Rourke had given the signal he’d decide in favor of a nationwide race for a presidential nomination against more than a dozen fellow Democrats.

His near-miss in 2018 brought him national publicity by the Iowa roll-out of his presidential bid — big write-ups and TV coverage, including a cover story in Vanity Fair, attention from The New Yorker and The New York Times and an hour-long program on MSNBC, among others.

Meanwhile, Castro, 44, spent Friday speaking to a Latino Leaders Network businessmen’s luncheon in Las Vegas, Nevada — where Latinos make up 29 percent of the population.

Nevada, like New Hampshire and South Carolina, is one of the early-primary states that serve as proving grounds for presidential hopefuls. It is, however, the first test state with a diverse population.

Castro, as the only Latino in the race, hopes to sell the idea that having him on the ticket could help energize the bilingual, bicultural Latino turnout enough that in some red states, like Texas, he could help the Democrats finally turn a state to Democratic blue.

Castro also noted in Nevada that his congressman twin, Joaquin Castro, sponsored the resolution to block President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to get money for his border wall. The resolution passed March 14, but Trump vetoed it Friday.

While the competition between Julian Castro and Beto in the presidential contest continues, there is a sort of quirk that could occur — if Joaquin indeed picks up on challenging Cornyn for his senate seat.

If Beto makes it onto the Democratic ticket for November, and repeats and improves on his organizational effort to boost Democratic turnout in Texas in 2020, that could help Joaquin against Cornyn, 67.

Of course, if Julian Castro makes it onto the November ballot, his candidacy could also boost his brother, should he try for the senate.

Still in progress for both Beto and Julian Castro is what they are made of and what policies they are running on.

O’Rourke is both admired and criticized because he will talk to — and listen to — anyone. He is not only willing, but eager, to work across the aisle.

During his Iowa tour, Beto said his grassroots campaign, “powered completely by people, having the courage of our convictions, having the humility to listen to and understand things from other people’s perspective, is not just the best way to run, I think it may be the only way to win and the best way to serve once in office.”

The criticism comes from those who think he is too vague, too undefined, talking about goals but not much about the methods to achieve them.

Julian Castro is more specific, with one of his main issues being dealing with a workable path to citizenship for immigrants. Both he and O’Rourke strongly oppose Trump’s border wall.

So, we’ll get to watch these folks vie for these offices for the next year or so. We’ll see if either Julian Castro or Beto O’Rourke makes it onto a ticket that reaches Texas, and whether Joaquin Castro runs for the senate — and if so, wins.

Stay tuned.

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— Dave McNeely, an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics, appears Thursday.

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