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Julián Castro makes trip to Iowa as midterms — and 2020 decision — loom

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro speaking before a speech delivered by President Barack Obama at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona on Jan. 8, 2015. (Courtesy: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Julián Castro is making his first trip to Iowa this weekend as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, looking to boost midterm candidates there and sound out voters in the key presidential proving ground.

The trip comes as Castro's political operation kicks into high gear, unveiling dozens of endorsements and announcing staff to help him navigate the current election cycle — and maybe the next one.

The three-day trip to the Hawkeye State — Friday through Sunday — includes nine events, ranging from an agriculture startup accelerator to a pair of fundraisers for state legislative candidates. On Friday afternoon, Castro is visiting the Iowa State Fair to speak at the Des Moines Register Old-Fashioned Political Soapbox, a key stop for prospective White House hopefuls.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, Castro said the purpose of the trip is twofold: to help the candidates he is supporting there and also to hear what is on voters' minds as he considers a White House bid.

It was not long after Castro left the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2017 that he began being mentioned as possible 2020 contender. For months, he has said that he plans to make up his mind on a White House run by the end of the year, and he said in the interview he will "likely make an announcement after the year turns over."

"What I believe is that people are always most focused on the bread-and-butter issues that affect their family," Castro said, ticking through issues like health care and jobs. He also cited the chaos in Washington, D.C., under President Donald Trump, specifically how his "erratic behavior on tariffs has hit [Iowa] hard." Even among some people who voted for Trump in 2016, he added, he believes there is a desire for "different vision."

In Iowa, Castro is contending with several other potential 2020 candidates who either have already touched down there or will for the first time this weekend. The lineup for the state fair soapbox has included at least four other potential candidates — people like U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer — as well as a declared candidate, Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delaney.

If the 2020 presidential race informally starts the morning after the midterms, "we're solidly into the pre-season at this point," said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. Still, the pre-2020 activity by potential candidates is hovering below most Iowans' radar. "If you weren't paying attention, you wouldn't even know they were there," Goldford said.

While this weekend marks Castro's first visit to Iowa as a prospective White House contender, it is not the first politically significant trip he has made this year. He has been to New Hampshire twice and went to Nevada last week — both of which hold famously early presidential primaries — in addition to the trips to places like Georgia to campaign for the gubernatorial candidate there, Stacey Abrams. Castro initially was to travel to Iowa in June, but he canceled the trip to visit El Paso and protest family separations at the border.

Castro's political activities are being run through his Opportunity First PAC, which was formed a year ago and which he formally launched in January. Since its inception, the group has raised almost $366,982 and spent $174,967, which includes over two dozen donations to candidates it supports, according to records with the Federal Election Commission.

Castro has doled out 64 endorsements through the PAC, weighing in on races ranging from the highest-profile in the country — Jacky Rosen's bid to topple U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, for example — to those much farther down the ballot in places like Iowa. The list features 21 candidates up and down the ballot in Texas, including the earliest state contest Castro waded into: former HUD official Colin Allred's campaign against U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.

The PAC allows Castro to engage heavily in the midterms while also making connections he could use later.

Among the Castro supporters who has helped raise money for the PAC is Scott Atlas, a longtime lawyer from Houston. When he hosted an Opportunity First fundraiser earlier this year in a Houston high-rise apartment, Atlas said, "We literally had to break the party into two different events because we couldn't handle the crowd."

Atlas wants to see Castro take the leap in 2020, saying the 43-year-old would bring a number of advantages to the race.

“First of all ... he's relatively young — substantially younger than most of the people who've been talked about for the position — and for people looking for new leadership — new, young, progressive leadership — it’s harder to think about anybody who’s got a better story and the ability to articulate it than he does," Atlas said. In addition to embodying the American dream, Atlas added, Castro had an impressive record as San Antonio mayor, comes across as a unifying figure and can make the case he's "not part of the D.C. establishment."

"I think he’s got as good a chance as anyone," Atlas said. "It’s a wide-open race. Who would’ve ever predicted the outcome on the Republican side" in 2016?

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