State of Texas: O’Rourke, Castro on separate debate stages with a lot at stake

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Julian Castro was one of the first Democrats to announce a 2020 presidential bid. 

After spending six months climbing out of a basement of obscurity in a crowded field of candidates, he had a chance to introduce himself to voters in the first Democratic presidential debate last month.

Taking on former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke — instead of the issue of immigration — put the former San Antonio mayor and Obama administration HUD secretary’s campaign on a fast track.

Following his debate performance, Castro’s campaign reported an influx of donations, more than doubling his intake from the first quarter to the second. 

Castro’s campaign raised $2.8 million from April to June, according to financial documents filed with the Federal Election Committee, and $1.1 million of that came after the debate.

The Castro campaign has been relying on small donors, announcing last week it hit the 130,000 donor threshold for the September debate in Houston, with an average donation of $22.

Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edwards University, said Castro’s small donor approach is an advantage that could benefit him in the long run.

“When you have small donors it means they can give again,” Smith said.  “He’s hoping for a real strong performance in the next debate and for a few candidates to drop out … and [if they drop out] that money has to go somewhere.”

Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s fundraising has plummeted.

He raised $3.8 million from April to June, less than he raised in the first 24 hours of his campaign. O’Rourke still has more money on-hand than Castro, but he’s spent more than he’s taken in over the past three months. 

A positive for O’Rourke: nearly all donations over the past three months have come from online contributions under $200, and most were from new donors.

Smith said O’Rourke has to find a way to stand out on the campaign trail if he wants to compete with the top-tier candidates and keep his campaign alive.

“He’s got to find a way to make himself a unique, and also a viable candidate and he hasn’t been able to do that,” Smith said. “He’s been crowded out on issues, crowded out as the energetic new candidate and also what’s hurting him is he doesn’t have a full-time job.”

Even with fundraising totals well behind the party’s front-runners, both candidates passed the monetary and donor thresholds for the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31. 

But they won’t get the chance to face off on the same stage.

The lineup was announced Thursday and the two Texans are split up. O’Rourke will debate the first night, and Castro will debate on the second.

The third debate will be Sept. 12 and 13 in Houston. To qualify for their home turf, the campaigns have to meet a higher standard.

Qualifying for the Miami and Detroit debates, candidates were only required to have 65,000 donors and hit at least 1% in three national polls.  To make it on the stage in Houston, candidates must have 130,000 donors and at least 2% support in four national polls.

O’Rourke has already qualified for Houston, but Castro still needs to break the polling threshold.

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