AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was long viewed as biding his time: waiting out shifting demographics in Texas until 2018, when a Hispanic Democrat with a national profile could be a formidable contender for governor.
Instead, the 39-year-old rising political star has accepted President Barack Obama's offer to become the nation's housing secretary. Aside from positioning Castro as a possible vice presidential candidate in 2016, it's a promotion that his fiercely Republican home state couldn't offer anytime soon.
Democrats, led by architects of Obama's re-election in 2012, are pouring millions of dollars into the state to put Texas back in play on the electoral map. No Democrat has won a statewide race in Texas in two decades, the longest streak of political futility in the U.S. But the state's booming Hispanic population — Hispanics since 2000 have counted for roughly two out of every three new residents — has given Democrats hope. At the same time, a turnaround could still be far off.
"If we do what we're supposed to do, we're going to be OK in Texas for a long, long time," said Lionel Sosa, a Republican former adviser to President George W. Bush who helped the GOP capture 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election.
Castro is an up-and-comer described as an "all-star" on Friday by Obama, who in 2012 picked him to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. A Mexican-American whose mother was a civil rights activist, Castro at the time was coming off an easy re-election in San Antonio, where he said he saw himself staying as mayor until term limits pushed him out in 2017.
Those close to him said joining Obama's cabinet now after spurning a previous opportunity wasn't a matter of Castro growing pessimistic or impatient about his future in Texas.
"A lot of people take the longer view of the demographic changes occurring in our state. I think that (Castro) has always known both the demographic and political realities in Texas," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, another of the party's rising stars in San Antonio. "But opportunity is only going to knock so many times when the president of the United States asks you to serve."
Mark McKinnon, a top Republican strategist who advised the presidential campaigns of Bush and John McCain, said Castro had hit his political ceiling back home.
"I think Julian Castro is (a) big fish that has just outgrown his pond in Texas," he said in an email interview.
Wendy Davis, a Texas Democrat equally as famous as Castro after her nearly 13-hour filibuster over new abortion restrictions last summer, has energized her party like no gubernatorial candidate since Ann Richards, who narrowly won the office in 1990. Yet Davis remains a heavy underdog to Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Nor is the Texas GOP getting any less conservative: Tea party challengers are poised to knock off establishment Republicans and clean up in primary runoffs Tuesday.
Democrats say 2020 is a realistic target for Texas to become a swing state. Obama lost Texas by 16 points in 2012, and a year later, those who engineered his re-election campaign launched Battleground Texas with the goal of using long-term, grass-roots organizing to ultimately put the state's 38 electoral votes up for grabs.
If confirmed by the Senate, Castro would become one of the highest-ranking Hispanic officials in the federal government. Two years ago, Castro spoofed the constant speculation about his political ceiling with a video in which he asks his iPhone's digital personal assistant, Siri, whether he should run for higher office.
"Ay, mijo," the phone answered back in Spanish. "Of course you should."
Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber