NORTH LIBERTY, IOWA -- Julian Castro's arrival in Iowa didn't garner the same national attention as the departing Sen. Elizabeth Warren's did, but the young 2020 hopeful found his warm reception nonetheless in a home just outside Iowa City Monday night, where a group of Democratic activists hosted him at their monthly potluck dinner.
"What I see in our country today is that for the first time in a long time we’re going backward instead of forward," Castro said at the gathering. "In the coming months, starting on Saturday, I’m going to be talking about my vision for the future."
Castro is preparing to make an announcement about a run for the presidency in 2020 on Jan. 12 in San Antonio. Though he wouldn't say Monday night if that announcement would be a declaration to run, Castro made plenty of references to the coming months on the potential campaign trail.
"If I decide to run, because we’re not at Saturday yet, I look forward to addressing it," he said at one point, joking and beginning his response to a question from one of the members of the group about health care.
"I have the experience that it takes to actually get things done," Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing chief under former President Barack Obama, said to the group of Iowans gathered in a living room, flowing over into the nearby dining room and kitchen. He made a brief speech followed by time for members of the group to ask Castro questions.
One woman, concerned about Iowa farmers, asked what Castro would do about the trade war President Donald Trump has started with China. Another asked how he plans to fund his campaign, if he runs, given his promise to not accept PAC money. And one man asked how Castro would respond to a hypothetical attack from Trump, if it came to it, about having the last name Castro, a name he shares with the Cuban Communist revolutionary and politician, Fidel Castro.
"I guess I would have to explain the difference between Mexican and Cuban," Castro, a Mexican-American raised in Texas, said to laughs.
The event, billed as a potluck, was anything but. In fact, the food was merely an accessory to the group's purpose. They call themselves the "Potluck Insurgency," said Jane Cranston, a member of the group and resident of the home Castro visited Monday night. "Yes, the name is supposed to give you a little chuckle," Cranston, 68, said.
The group sprung up during the 2016 election in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. After her loss, they continued to organize, donning their name, and have since been a target for other potential Democratic contenders for the presidency in 2020, including Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, former presidential candidate Martin O'Malley and California Rep. Eric Swalwell.
"At our house, we’ve hosted Merkley, and we had O’Malley at one of the events in a park, we had Eric Swalwell at our house as well," Cranston said, ticking off the list of high-profile Washington players that have set foot in her home in the Iowa City suburbs.
Asked how they've managed to draw such a group, Ed Cranston said they ask themselves the same questions. "I mean, partly it's Iowa," he said.
"It’s a very exciting time, they’ve all been within the last year. They all came in preparation, I think, for their possible run. But some came to get out the vote for the possible midterms," Jane Cranston said. Her husband, Ed, is treasurer of their county's Democratic Party and both volunteered at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
All the legislators they've met have been "marvelous," Cranston said, though with 2020 almost two years out, it's too early to decide.
Of Castro, her husband said he believes he'll "definitely be in the final cut."
"He's got the background, he's got the sense, I think he can generate the energy," he said. "He looks younger than he is, which helps too."
But Kade Schemahorn, also at the potluck and from nearby Iowa City, said he wasn't sure Castro's age would help him. Castro is 44 and became the youngest city councilman in San Antonio history at age 26, back in 2001.
"I think he's going to get a lot of opposition for being so young, but he seems to have a lot of great experience," Schemahorn said.
Castro is one of an abnormally large group of Democrats expected to run, including higher-profile figures like Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, former presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders and a host of other senators, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Corey Booker and Kamala Harris.
The large field of Democrats he faces is another stumbling block that gave some at the gathering pause.
"I do wonder how he's going to distinguish himself in a very large field of Democrats," said Charlotte Fairlie, also an Iowa City resident, after the event ended. "It's a challenge for all of them but he's lower profile."
Castro announced in a video last month that he had launched an exploratory committee for a 2020 run.
He was elected San Antonio mayor in 2009 and gained a national political profile in 2012, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.
In 2014, Obama named him secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was also vetted as a potential Democratic running mate to Hillary Clinton in 2016.