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'Draft Beto' grassroots group in California got early start that could help 2020 candidate

Key Points
  • Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke already enjoys political support in California, where a draft movement includes supporters throughout the state.
  • The Democrat's 2018 Texas Senate campaign raised more than $5 million in the Golden State, and he has fans from Hollywood to Silicon Valley.
  • O'Rourke faces a challenge, though, in presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris, who has a home-state advantage.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke visits with voters on his first day of campaigning for the 2020 nomination at the home of Randy Naber March 14, 2019 in Muscatine, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Even before former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke announced his formal 2020 presidential run Thursday, he enjoyed political support in California.

A Draft Beto movement, which began in January, included supporters throughout the state. The Democrat's 2018 Texas Senate campaign raised more than $5 million in the Golden State, and he's won fans from Hollywood to Silicon Valley.

"I'm excited for Beto O'Rourke to enter the race," said Dylah Ray, a Google employee in Silicon Valley who volunteered in the Draft Beto effort in California. "I'm definitely seeing a groundswell of enthusiasm."

A Texas native, Ray hosted a Draft Beto house party with about 30 people in February. She said the party was attended by "all Silicon Valley folks," including tech workers and educators.

She also flew back to Texas last year to volunteer in the last few weeks of O'Rourke's run against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

"I think he can bring that same enthusiasm and globalization and unification that he did there in Texas here in California and across the country too," said Ray. "A lot of his ideas and policies can be tremendously impactful in California, particularly immigration and criminal justice reform."

The Draft Beto group also showed strong support in the Los Angeles area, including among people who work in the entertainment industry. O'Rourke could tap into wealthy donors in Hollywood as he did in the Senate race, when he received money from Rosie O'Donnell, Jimmy Kimmel, Chris Rock and others.

But the 46-year-old O'Rourke faces a challenge in California, in that 2020 Democratic presidential contender Sen. Kamala Harris has a home-state advantage. Harris grew up in the Golden State and has been elected to several offices there.

O'Rourke could also face another White House contender from California, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, whose congressional district is in northern Silicon Valley.

"We've been working in the state for months, and we've had more than 17 house parties across California," said Michael Soneff, a political strategist who coordinated the Draft Beto effort in California. He said the group built a grassroots infrastructure in the state to keep O'Rourke competitive with other Democratic candidates.

Soneff said the number of political contributions O'Rourke received from California in his Texas race against Cruz is a reflection of his appeal in the delegate-rich state. He said the more than $5 million raised in California for O'Rourke came from about 24,000 individual contributions, with most of it in small donations.

"A lot of folks who have been in politics are sort of on our staff now and working for free as volunteers because they believe Beto is the best chance and best candidate to take on [President] Donald Trump in 2020," said Soneff.

Trump's comments about O'Rourke, including one Thursday about how the Democrat moves his hands when he speaks, appears to be generating more attention for the Texan.

"Without question, Trump talking about O'Rourke does help him," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a longtime political analyst and retired professor of public policy communication at the University of Southern California. "The message is that if Trump hates him, the president may be nervous about him."

On Friday in Iowa, O'Rourke took a swipe at Trump, calling attention to the New Zealand mass shooting in two mosques and remarks from "national leadership" about Muslims and immigrants.

O'Rourke, who in Congress represented the border city of El Paso, has been a critic of Trump's border wall and made immigration a central theme with voters. The Democrat has pledged to "take the wall down" and has an immigration plan that includes citizenship for so-called Dreamers and their parents.

A message focused around immigration also could do well for O'Rourke in California, since the state has more than 10 million foreign-born residents.

O'Rourke has been a longtime supporter of legalizing marijuana and wants to see an end to cash bail. California became the first state last year to pass legislation ending cash bail for suspects in the state's criminal justice system.

"California is a very progressive state," said Cameron Onumah, political director at Dianne Feinstein for Senate 2018 and a Southern California advisor to the Draft Beto effort. "When you're looking at the 16 names or so that have announced for president of the United States, there's almost this game of who is more progressive and who can say something that is more appealing to the base."

Onumah said O'Rourke is the right candidate, because the Democrat can explain a progressive vision that appeals not just to Californians but to the voters in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

"Those states are where we're really going to need to win," he said. "Californians are smart and looking for someone who is electable, and I think Beto is that person."