Ryan J. Rusak

Julian Castro, maybe there’s a better spot on the ballot for you than president

Politics abhors a vacuum.

And there may be a huge one developing in Texas Democratic politics.

A stunning new poll this week showed that seven in 10 voters planning to participate in the party’s primary are undecided on a U.S. Senate candidate or want someone who’s not yet in the field.

It’s early, more than six months before any votes are cast. Campaigns are just getting going on raising money and appealing to party activists and leaders.

But there’s a huge opening for a charismatic Texan whose presidential campaign is dropping off the radar, despite a dose of recent national attention.

Not him. The other guy. Julian Castro.

More on why it should be the former Obama Cabinet member and not Beto O’Rourke in a minute. First, let’s consider what the primary means to the party.

I wrote a few weeks ago that a contested primary is a good sign of political maturity for Texas Democrats. The party will be stronger if, rather than designating a hoped-for hero or celebrity candidate, it wages its battles and moves forward to the fall. Also, some of the roiling arguments that Democrats are having over progressivism and moderation should take place in Texas.

All that’s still true. If Castro decides to come home and seek the right to take on Republican incumbent John Cornyn, he should have to earn it. No more field-clearing. Remember, for all his political promise, Castro has never won an election bigger than a San Antonio municipal vote. He needs to prove he can win statewide against substantive opponents.

But the stakes for next year’s elections are only getting higher. Four Texas Republicans have recently decided to retire from their seats in Congress — some Democrats are gleefully calling it the “Texodus.”

Three of the districts, including Rep. Kenny Marchant’s 24th in North Texas, were already likely to be competitive. But it’s always easier for a party to flip an open seat than take out an incumbent.

Plus, the retirements could be signs that the lawmakers knew they would struggle to win, or would be part of a long-term House minority, or both. Either way, that’s good news for congressional Democrats.

Democrats have a shot at state House

Statehouse Republicans appear to be settling in for a pitched battle over what House Speaker Dennis Bonnen did or didn’t say in his ill-advised meeting with a conservative activist.

Opportunity suddenly abounds for Texas Democrats. They can help shore up their party’s U.S. House majority and maybe grab control of the state House — which would give them a say in drawing political maps after the 2020 Census.

A hole at the top of their ballot in the race against John Cornyn, though, may dampen down-ballot turnout. A strong candidate, particularly a well-known Hispanic leader, could help prevent that.

O’Rourke could probably make the same switch. But his recent desperate lunges at relevance may have made him unelectable even in his home state. His reaction to the shooting in his hometown was deflating. Not content to spotlight President Donald Trump’s racism and contributions to a toxic political climate, he put the gun in Trump’s hand.

“You do not get this shooter coming to El Paso until you have a president give him permission to do so,” O’Rourke told The Dallas Morning News. It’s a ridiculous assertion that obliterates the concept of personal responsibility.

O’Rourke told a liberal podcast host that the U.S. should consider a gun buyback program similar to Australia’s. Good luck winning statewide in Texas on that platform.

(An aside: “Buyback” is a ridiculous euphemism. It wasn’t the government’s gun originally; we’re talking about confiscation of legally obtained property, albeit with some level of compensation.)

Debates will be decisive

O’Rourke has qualified for the next two debates, including September’s fiesta in Houston, and Castro appears likely to make at least one.

But if either should miss, say, the November debate, it could be a death knell.

The deadline for candidates to file for their spots on Texas primary ballots is Dec. 9.

Unless Castro has suddenly surged in the presidential race by then, the best thing he can do for himself — and his party — is move one line down the ballot.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.