One Texan became a political sensation waging a long shot U.S. Senate campaign, then stormed into the presidential race with even more momentum, climbing in the polls, running up monster fundraising and dominating the national conversation. The other announced his 2020 bid earlier and to far less fanfare, then struggled for months to even stay relevant.
Both Beto O’Rourke and Julin Castro were in Austin on Friday night staging dueling events within an hour — and a few blocks — of each other.
But, suddenly, those gatherings unfolded as Castro is the Texas presidential candidate on the rise, at least partially at the expense of O’Rourke, whose early buzz has fallen away.
Castro, a former Obama administration housing chief and mayor of San Antonio, has been buoyed by a well-received performance during Wednesday’s first night of Democratic debates in Miami, when he railed on O’Rourke for not backing his idea of decriminalizing the act of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
O’Rourke, a former congressman from the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso who sees immigration as an issue of strength, responded that doing so might shield drug- and human-smugglers from punishment. Looking for a breakout debate moment to catapult him back among the race’s leaders, O’Rourke instead saw Castro upstage him.
The fallout from that exchange followed both back to Texas’ capital. And, despite being longtime friends, the pair’s paths didn’t cross.
Castro held a Texas Democratic Party fundraiser at one bar. At another, O’Rourke had a meet-and-greet with his supporters recalling the feel-good days of his Senate bid last year, when he nearly upset Republican Ted Cruz in the country’s largest red state.
“To all of you, who made everything possible in 2018, starting with meetings like this one,” O’Rourke told a large crowd that filled an outdoor patio.
Spokesman Chris Evans said O’Rourke had an open day on his calendar before a previously planned weekend trip to Houston and decided to hit Austin. He said it had nothing to do with Castro being there: “When scheduling a presidential campaign, we don’t look through what 23 other Democratic candidates are doing.”
Anna Guerrero, 45, saw O’Rourke before heading to Castro’s event, saying, “I decided why not, let’s come and see what I think of them up close and personal.”
Asked if she’d support O’Rourke, Guerrero said: “I don’t know right now, and immigration is my biggest concern, and I’m not sure he is where I want him to be for me to be comfortable voting for him in that area.”
Evans said he wouldn’t comment until the final numbers are ready, but O’Rourke’s campaign advisers are privately worried they’ll fail to meet key targets ahead of the end-of-quarter deadline Sunday. Supporters were hoping for a bump after the debate, but O’Rourke failed to deliver a breakout moment.
Russell Buyse, 54, attended O’Rourke’s event and said O’Rourke could have been stronger during the debate and seemed a little bit nervous.
“His empathic way of connecting with voters is one of his great strengths,” Buyse said, “and that doesn’t come across quite as well on a debate stage with nine other people on the podium.”
In a role reversal, Castro finds himself on a post-debate upswing. Although his campaign didn’t disclose exact figures, Castro said Friday that nearly 16,000 people donated on Thursday alone, 71% of whom were new donors.
“I think he gave a great performance at the debate. Before that, he wasn’t exactly on my radar,” said 28-year-old Arturo Garza, who attended the Castro party fundraiser. “I was hopeful, but after that, I was like, ‘OK, he’s definitely a solid contender that’s willing to put himself out there.'”
Castro drew cheers when he told the crowd: “A few months ago, they were writing me up as the other Texan. But that is no more. I am the Texan in this race.”
Not everyone was convinced, though. Tiam Leyva, a 36-year-old wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with “Beto Days Are Coming,” drove three-plus hours from Plano for O’Rourke’s gathering. She said of Castro: “He changed my mind in a negative way because last year I know he campaigned for Beto.”
She said the debate dustup “kind of made me get turned off to him because he bullied his friend for gain.”