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Booker and Castro seize on Kamala Harris’s exit to make the case for candidates of color

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) poses for photos after a roundtable with black male voters on Dec. 2 in South Carolina. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

DES MOINES — Sen. Cory Booker, who faces a very real danger of failing to qualify for the next Democratic debate, took sharp aim at his own party Thursday in the aftermath of Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s recent exit from the presidential race.

What does it say, Booker asked a roomful of supporters in Iowa, that an “immensely qualified, widely supported, truly accomplished black woman, running to lead … a party that is significantly empowered by black women voters, didn’t have the resources that she needed to continue her campaign?”

He added, “What message is that sending — that we heralded the most diverse field in our history and now we’re seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign?”

As the effects from Harris’s departure Tuesday continued to ripple through the Democratic Party, two of the highest-profile candidates of color remaining in the field — Booker (D-N.J.) and former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro — sought to seize the moment. They hope to tap into the concerns voiced by many in the party that a lack of diversity among the top candidates could undermine efforts to mobilize voters of color, who stayed home in record numbers in 2016.

Booker, who is African American, and Castro, who is Latino, have both been outspoken in praising Harris (D-Calif.), their erstwhile rival, appealing to her former supporters who are now shopping around for a new candidate to represent their vision of an inclusive party, hoping the Democrats’ self-scrutiny would win their candidacies a second look.

Castro blamed journalists for focusing on which Democrat would be most “electable,” and suggesting a white man would have the best shot at defeating President Trump.

“The media’s flawed formula for ‘electability’ has pushed aside women and candidates of color,” Castro said on Twitter. “Our party’s diversity is our strength, and it’s a shame that we’re headed for a December debate without a single person of color.”

And on a campaign swing in California, Castro assailed the media for its coverage of Harris, telling CBS News the press had held her to a “a different standard, a double standard … that was grossly unfair” by focusing on turmoil within her campaign rather than her message.

More broadly, Harris’s abrupt exit has spurred Democrats to grapple with the increasing whiteness of their 2020 field, including the possibility the Dec. 19 debate might feature only white candidates.

With the qualification deadline a week away, the remaining minority candidates in the race — Booker, Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and businessman Andrew Yang — have yet to meet the Democratic National Committee’s polling and donor thresholds.

While the Democrats began with a historically diverse field, the candidates who are near the top of most polls — former vice president Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — are white.

Booker said it was not rank-and-file Democrats who pushed Harris from the race, adding, “Voters did not determine her destiny.” Rather, he argued, it was a flawed process that favors wealthy candidates, who can use their money to goose their polling numbers and spur additional contributions.

“I’m just going to say it plain: It is a problem that we now have an overall campaign for the 2020 presidency that has more billionaires in it than black people,” Booker said at his Des Moines event.

In the crowd, an older black woman nodded and lifted a hand to the air.

Booker has been especially aggressive on the subject in recent days, speaking about his “anger” over Harris’s exit with reporters and voicing concerns about the debate thresholds with new urgency.

On Tuesday, just hours after Harris’s announcement, Booker’s campaign added Thursday’s speech to a planned four-day, 12-stop swing though Iowa, a state that could determine the fortunes of his struggling presidential bid.

Booker has invested heavily in the ground game in the state and is banking that a good showing here could propel him with new momentum into other early primary states, essentially the same strategy that worked for Barack Obama in 2008. The senator said he was the only candidate in the race who could assemble the same kind of diverse coalition that pushed Obama to victory 11 years ago.

“This election is about something deeper than any candidate,” Booker said. “It’s about how we can inspire the diverse coalitions we need to inspire.”

In Iowa, Harris, like Booker, had built up a robust organization, including an army of newly energized women supporters who are now up for grabs. During his appearance in Des Moines, Booker was careful not to be seen as capitalizing on Harris’s departure, though his message at times was clearly aimed at making inroads with her supporters and other Democrats who are vexed by the party’s diversity problem.

Speaking to reporters backstage after his event, Booker recounted the frustration and conflicting emotions he’d felt since Harris quit the race. He said he’d fielded phone calls from women of color who, citing Harris, questioned if they would ever be able to run for office and win.

“Something about the system is not fair if she couldn’t even make it to Iowa,” Booker said of Harris.

But Harris’s decision to quit the race was also a moment of opportunity for Booker and Castro, who are vying to keep their presidential bids alive.

Ahead of Booker’s speech, his campaign announced that Wednesday was its biggest fundraising day of the race so far, attracting 11,000 new donors. Castro’s campaign said he had raised more than $360,000 from 18,000 donors since Harris’s exit Tuesday.

But candidates must also hit certain polling targets to qualify, and it’s not clear if Booker or Castro will do that. On Thursday, Booker notably called on his supporters to answer their phones when a pollster called — acknowledging concerns within his campaign that voters besieged by robocalls are simply ignoring unknown numbers and failing to register support that could be crucial for his campaign.

“We’re 1 percentage point in almost all these polls from making the debate stage, which, you know, in a very tight sample size, two people, three people,” Booker told reporters. “And if you’re basing the success of my campaign on a 400-person sample size and three people, your metric is the one that we should be talking about, not mine. I’m basing mine on Iowa voters, Iowa caucusgoers and the kind of campaign that we’re building.”

He declined to say what would happen if he failed to qualify for the December debate.

Nancy Bobo, a Des Moines activist and top Booker supporter, said that she and others who have been knocking on doors on the senator’s behalf in recent days had been instructing anyone they encountered to talk to pollsters if they cared about keeping Booker’s voice in the race.

“Answer your phones,” Bobo said. “Please, please answer your phones.”