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Beto O’Rourke’s campaign-in-waiting awaits his signal

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has not yet said if he will run for president, and the effort to draft him remains far smaller than the unsuccessful campaign to draw Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race in 2016. | Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

2020 Elections

‘Draft Beto’ efforts are laying a foundation in the early primary states where the former Texas congressman has been absent.

First came the fundraising solicitations. Then the social media-ready videos, the house parties and a string of Democratic strategists signing on in early primary states.

Beto O’Rourke might not have a campaign yet, but he has a campaign-in-waiting. And if he decides to run for president, he’ll be handed an existing infrastructure that could help mitigate the effects of a late entry into the 2020 race.

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Two separate ‘Draft Beto’ efforts have become a significant force to keep public attention focused on him as a potential presidential candidate. And their groundwork in early primary states could prove critical if O’Rourke enters the race, delivering a roster of consultants and supporters for him to tap into if he runs. Unlike many of his Democratic rivals — several of whom are already far along in building their staffs — O’Rourke has done little on his own to assemble a campaign infrastructure in those states.

In Nevada last week, a message introducing the Draft Beto effort was forwarded to Democrats via the secretary of the state Democratic Party, and when Democrats in New Hampshire received invitations to a Draughts with Draft Beto event in Concord next week, nine state representatives were listed among the co-hosts.

The campaign now has a presence not only in those critical early states, but also in delegate-rich California, which will hold an early March primary in 2020 and where a small platoon of Democratic consultants — including former Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama operatives — have signed on. In South Carolina, Tyler Jones, a chief strategist for Joe Cunningham’s upset victory in a congressional race last year, and Boyd Brown, a former state lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member, are working on Draft Beto campaigns.

O’Rourke has not yet said whether he will run for president, and the effort to draft him remains much smaller than the unsuccessful campaign to draw Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race in 2016. Before that presidential election, the influential progressive groups Democracy for America and MoveOn organized opened offices in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire and collected 365,000 signatures before abandoning the effort.

Still, the list-building and organizing work O’Rourke’s supporters are doing on O’Rourke’s behalf could give him a “leg up,” said Charles Chamberlain, chairman of DFA.

After the nearly $ 1.5 million effort to draw Warren into the 2016 contest disbanded, Chamberlain said, DFA’s next choice, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, “basically took the infrastructure that we built for Run Warren Run,” including staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

For O’Rourke, Chamberlain said, “It does give a chance to do some pre-organizing before an announcement.”

There is abundant historical precedent for draft campaigns and their political cousins — the write-ins. In addition O’Rourke, lower-profile draft efforts have sprung up this year around Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Sherrod Brown and Howard Schultz.

But such efforts nearly always fail — or they attach themselves to candidates who would have run regardless. Two rare exceptions occasionally mentioned by O’Rourke supporters came in the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower and a reluctant Adlai Stevenson were both the subject of vigorous draft campaigns.

This year, one of the campaigns to draft O’Rourke has amassed an email list of close to 7,500 people already, said Nate Lerner, one of the co-founders. It’s set a goal of raising $ 1 million, though so far it’s raised only about $ 30,000 since forming in December, organizers told POLITICO.

Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders

A promotional video that the group cut for O’Rourke reached more than 600,000 views on Twitter, and the group has expanded its fundraising not only to pour money into an account that it would transfer to O’Rourke if he runs, but also to promote the draft campaign on social media.

“It’s smaller [than Run Warren Run] in that we’re not MoveOn,” Lerner said. “But that also, I think, speaks to the power behind this, that we’re able to accomplish what we have. … We’ve spent very little, and yet we’ve built up something that’s pretty massive.”

Earlier this month, organizers of a separate Draft Beto campaign held gatherings for supporters in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and invitations in New Hampshire have gone out for events next week at a brewery in Manchester and at the home of Democratic activist Jay Surdukowski, who co-chaired Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign in the state.

“A red state Democrat from a border-state could be an important voice in the Primary debates,” the invitation for the Manchester event read.

Will Herberich, a New England-based strategist co-chairing Draft Beto 2020, the group behind the New Hampshire and Iowa events, said about 35 people attended a gathering in Iowa City and about 45 people in Des Moines. He and organizers of the better-funded Draft Beto campaign told POLITICO they have held preliminary discussions about working together in an effort to avoid duplicating efforts.

Both groups are operating without O’Rourke’s input, though Lerner said, “We’ve had some loose conversations with some of his team members just to make sure that they don’t hate us.”

Lerner said, “They definitely like that we’re keeping him relevant in the news.”

Still, without a candidate, draft campaigns can quickly sour. Last week, organizers of a campaign to draft Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti into the presidential race, told POLITICO that after launching on Twitter in July 2017, most of the roughly 100 people who were actively involved in the campaign but not living in Los Angeles had moved on.

“Neither Mayor Garcetti nor anyone on his team ever reached out to any of our leadership by phone, and refused to meet with one of our key leaders during his three visits to L.A.,” Mike Weber, an Albuquerque-based organizer of the group, said in an email. “They dissed us more than a dozen times, including leaders on our team who each put in hundreds of hours of work in the Draft Garcetti effort. In 27 years in politics, I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even a simple 2-minute thank you call to the two young leaders I asked them to. Nothing but exclusion and ice-cold rudeness.”

Caucus attendees sign in.

Weber said he will now support Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), while others are throwing their support to Julián Castro or waiting for O’Rourke.

O’Rourke himself has avoided discussing 2020, instead focusing on immigration and taking a solo road trip through the Southwest last week, posting brooding dispatches on social media from the road. O’Rourke, who became a top-tier presidential contender after raising more than $ 80 million in his closer-than-expected Senate run against Republican Ted Cruz, is scheduled to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in New York at a live event on Feb. 5.

If he decides to run, in addition to any lift he might get from the draft campaigns, O’Rourke would also have the benefit of one of the most valuable email lists in Democratic Party politics.

But the clock is ticking on his decision and, to some Democrats, the mere existence of Draft Beto campaigns is nonsensical.

“If Beto O’Rourke wants to be president and he wants to run for president, great,” said James Carville, the former Bill Clinton strategist. “If he wants people to beg him to run for president, then you should not do it. … I desperately want [former New Orleans Mayor] Mitch Landrieu to run for president. I’m not going to beg him.”

He added, “If you want to run, go for it. If you don’t, don’t try to be convinced.”

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