The ‘Draft Beto’ campaign started in a diner in Dorchester
More than 2,300 miles from El Paso, Texas, the hometown of former US Senate candidate and Democratic Party rock star Beto O’Rourke, three friends gathered in November for a late breakfast at Victoria’s Diner behind the South Bay shopping center in Dorchester.
Through text messages and conference calls, the trio of thirtysomething Massachusetts political operatives had been celebrating and commiserating about Democratic wins and loses around the country — but the conversation kept coming back to O’Rourke, the 46-year-old, three-term US representative who used social media to raise more money than any other Senate candidate in history.
O’Rourke had just lost to Republican Ted Cruz by less than 3 percentage points in the closest Senate contest in Texas in four decades. But in the weeks after his defeat, some Democrats began buzzing that he could take on President Trump, and a CNN poll placed O’Rourke third among Iowa Democrats.
Hours later, breakfast became lunch, and Lauren Pardi, Will Herberich, and Adam Webster had the beginnings of a movement aimed at getting their candidate of choice into the race for president. A few days later, a Draft Beto website followed, and eventually tens of thousands of people signed on to participate in their efforts.
Herberich, Pardi, and Webster have no formal connection to O’Rourke or his advisers, they say. They have never met O’Rourke, and they say the only way they know what he’s doing is through media reports or Twitter. Only one of them has seen the candidate in action.
Herberich, 31, flew down to Austin the weekend before the election to join the throngs of O’Rourke volunteers knocking on doors. Before he flew back, he stood with 5,000 others to watch O’Rourke speak at a rally.
“I was just blown away. He really just had this crowd captivated speaking not just about Texas but about American values,” said Herberich, who lives in the Fenway. “I just remember thinking this guy needs to run for president.”
“First, it was how do we get some of our friends in Boston involved, and then it was how do we get some of our friends around New England involved,” said Webster, 35, who lives in the South End.
The Draft Beto group has become something of a second full-time job for the trio, for which they say they aren’t being paid. They’ve only raised a few thousand dollars that they say has gone toward signs, stickers, and plane tickets to Iowa.
“Our goal was to help activate the support we know exists all around the country by giving people the tools they need to reach out to their networks,” said Pardi, a 32-year-old former Obama campaign staffer who lives in the North End. “That’s why our first action items were to host an organizing call and put together a step-by-step plan. After we launched, the response was overwhelming.”
They maintain an e-mail list of 30,000 who have signed up for the draft campaign. Their first conference call included hundreds of people from 40 states. They’ve largely focused organizing on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are hosts of the first presidential nomination contests.
On Wednesday night, they hosted a Draft Beto party at the Concord home of New Hampshire activist Jay Surdukowski, who served Draft Beto beer (a re-labeled Bud Light can) and “Beto’s Vodka” (actually the Austin-based brand Tito’s, but with the politician’s face on it).
About two dozen people attended the event, which had 10 New Hampshire state representatives as co-hosts, including Democrat Ned Helms, who served on the initial steering committee for Barack Obama’s bid as it transitioned out of a volunteer draft movement.
“I was with Gary Hart in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008, and I see Beto in the same lane as the new person who can really inspire,” said Helms, who says O’Rouke is among the three or four potential candidates he is considering backing. “While Beto is making up his mind, this volunteer draft group is smart in trying to lay the foundation and harness the energy around his name.”
So-called draft movements for potential presidential candidates come in all shapes and sizes. In 1964, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a former Massachusetts senator, won the New Hampshire Republican primary as a write-in candidate even though he wasn’t living in the country. The Draft Obama effort was based on volunteers, most of whom never integrated into the presidential campaign. Ahead of the 2016 elections, “Ready for Hillary” raised money and served as the formal shell for Clinton operatives to organize under the guise of being a draft.
Adam Parkhomenko, the director of Ready for Hillary, said the Draft Beto movement “is solving a lot of his problems he has in waiting because they are providing a vehicle for people to be involved.”
The Boston-based group isn’t the only Draft Beto effort. A West Coast group kicked off roughly a month later and appears solely focused on raising $1 million of seed money for O’Rourke if he runs.
What any of this means for O’Rourke is unclear. In a recent interview, he referred to the Draft Beto group but said a decision could be months away.
“I think there are certainly — from the ‘Draft Beto’ folks to people who would likely be part of a campaign who are trying to figure out how it would work if we were to run,” O’Rourke told Politico. “But they’re not, again, doing it at my direction or with my input.”
He has since gone on a solo tour of the West, but he hasn’t written a blog post about his travels in a week. On Tuesday he is scheduled to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in New York City. O’Rourke, through an aide, declined to comment for this story.
Herberich said he found O’Rourke’s road trip to be refreshing because it was “unconventional” for a potential presidential candidate.
“I fully trust that he will make a decision on a time frame that gets him the ability to compete,” said Herberich. “We can’t do this forever, but for now this has been such an amazing experience.”