Group hoping to draft Beto plans ambitious 2020 push

Group hoping to draft Beto plans ambitious 2020 push
© Getty Images, The Hill photo illustration

A group of Democratic activists who support a 2020 White House run by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is planning an ambitious draft movement, including raising $1 million for the former congressman, building a donor email list and rolling out billboards and even, potentially, the first TV ad.

Draft Beto, which was formed a month after O’Rourke fell short in a surprisingly close Senate race in deep-red Texas, is also on a hiring spree, including bringing onboard a number of veteran operatives with ties to former President Obama’s campaigns and other Democrats who approached the group.

The group has brought on a seasoned staff of 20 and is building a presence in the four early nominating states, with new senior additions from Iowa on the horizon. All staffers serve in an unpaid, volunteer capacity.

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Draft Beto’s early moves can help mitigate the aggressive efforts made by other potential White House hopefuls to lock down key support at a time when O’Rourke himself has mostly stayed quiet about his plans for 2020.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann Warren2020 Dems seize on MLK Day for campaign messaging Kamala Harris staffer mocks O'Reilly for saying Harris 'lost' his vote for president Kamala Harris announces presidential campaign MORE (D-Mass.), for example, is already snatching up top talent in Iowa, and other likely candidates are making the rounds in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“You hear all the stories of all the Democratic campaigns finding operatives in states who will work for them and pay them,” Nate Lerner, co-founder of Draft Beto, told The Hill. “We have the opposite experience with people coming to us and willing to work for free.”

That includes Tyler Jones, who’s serving as South Carolina state director and is fresh off a stint working for newly elected Rep. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamGOP maps out early 2020 strategy to retake House Freshman Dem stopped after trying to bring beer onto House floor The Hill's 12:30 Report: Giuliani says Trump team should be allowed to 'correct' Mueller report | Trump closer to declaring national emergency | Congress approves back pay for federal workers MORE (D-S.C.) in his upset victory, as well as Michael Soneff, who will be the state director for Nevada.

Lerner said Jones’s involvement ultimately brought on Boyd Brown, who served as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s state chairman during his 2016 presidential campaign in South Carolina. O’Malley recently said he wouldn’t run again and endorsed O’Rourke for 2020.

Lerner said there are two operatives in Iowa working behind the scenes for the campaign to avoid conflicting with their day jobs. He said those people are helping to connect them with others on the ground. Draft Beto plans to announce its first Iowa adviser soon.

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Other goals of Draft Beto include raising $1 million for O’Rourke in an escrow account, allowing the money raised to be sent directly to his campaign as contributions from individual donors should he decide to jump in.

A smaller portion of the funds raised would be earmarked for special projects, Lerner said. That would include an upcoming video that will run, at least initially, as a digital ad on Twitter when the government reopens, with the aim of reaching a million views in the first few days.

But the group hopes to eventually raise enough money to go on the airwaves in some early states.

Despite all the efforts, the group hasn’t had any contact with O’Rourke. But they are planning to reach out soon, especially if an announcement is imminent.

“We do plan to contact him at some point, not talking about ads or strategy,” Lerner said, adding that they want to “notify them we’re doing things and get their initial impression of our existence.”

An exact timeline of an announcement about O’Rourke’s presidential ambitions is not yet certain.

As Democrats race to make their announcements in what’s likely to be the largest field in the party’s history, O’Rourke isn’t rushing to decide, though he’s leaning toward a run, according to Politico.

NBC News reported that he won’t make an announcement until February at the earliest.

For now, O’Rourke has started planning a solo trip that’d begin in his hometown of El Paso and make stops at places like community colleges outside of Texas, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But he reportedly asked his aides not to schedule visits in key nominating states like Iowa at a time when other potential White House hopefuls are planning multiple visits.

Warren has already made a weekend trip to the Hawkeye State in her first visit as a presidential candidate, getting a warm reception from crowds of people as she railed against corruption and big money in politics.

Warren has also nabbed several veteran aides in Iowa, including alumni from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination O'Rourke’s strategy: Show Americans the real Beto Conservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report MORE, Obama and Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination 2020 Democrats barnstorm the country for MLK weekend Bill Maher defends Bernie Sanders campaign over sexual harassment allegations MORE’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaigns.

But Lerner’s group can help O’Rourke get a jump-start on making those inroads and scooping up those with caucus expertise as he finalizes a decision.

Lerner’s group is not the only one seeking to draft O’Rourke, with Draft Beto 2020 also hoping to encourage the former congressman to run.

Nor is O’Rourke the only candidate-in-waiting who has a draft group encouraging a White House bid in 2020.

Another group named Our Revolution, the political organization borne out of Sanders’s run, formed a draft group to draw him into the race, according to BuzzFeed News, the second draft group urging Sanders to run.

Similar draft groups have also formed in the run-up to past presidential campaigns, most prominently the group “Ready for Hillary,” which was created ahead of Clinton’s 2016 presidential run.

Adam Parkhomenko, the co-founder of Ready for Hillary, said the challenges of these groups is the transition from an organization intending to draft a candidate to an official campaign.

Not all of the Ready for Hillary staffers ended up moving over to her presidential campaign, he said.

But Parkhomenko sees O’Rourke avoiding some of those challenges since he likely doesn’t have the same national infrastructure already in place like Sanders and former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden: 'We've learned in the last two years, it doesn't take much to awaken hate' 2020 Democrats barnstorm the country for MLK weekend BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president MORE, who are also considering a 2020 run.

Parkhomenko said he regrets not keeping the lights on at Ready for Hillary after Clinton jumped in. He believes it could have served a role to aid the campaign and to fill any holes. He suggests that other draft groups consider maintaining them if their candidates run.

“Being able to do things on the outside is a huge advantage,” Parkhomenko said. “If you feel something isn’t happening, there’s a lot of flexibility on the outside.

“You can do a ton for the person you support outside and have a far greater impact.”

Draft Beto’s Lerner said he’d want the group to remain active if O’Rourke decides to run but wouldn’t want to conflict with O’Rourke’s positions on PACs and outside groups.

If O’Rourke decides not to run, Draft Beto would eventually hand over their donations and resources like the email lists to the eventual Democratic presidential nominee.

But for now, Lerner says the group is happy to have O’Rourke stay out of the fray.

“Constantly going to Iowa and New Hampshire — you lose the authenticity factor,” Lerner said, adding that his group can act as a conduit for networking and conversations with operatives.

“We are, and he can inherit that,” he said.