Beto O'Rourke

Beto O’Rourke’s efforts to bring veteran staffers on board has come as a relief to supporters who feared his unorthodox campaign in Texas. | John Locher/AP Photo

2020 elections

O'Rourke stocks campaign with Obama and Clinton alums

Two new hires show he's trying to run a more buttoned-down operation than his improvisational Senate bid.

Beto O’Rourke is adding a pair of seasoned strategists to his campaign, injecting a measure of establishment credibility that was lacking in his improvisational Senate bid against Ted Cruz last year.

Lauren Brainerd, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s field director in 2018, has been hired as national organizing director. And Lise Clavel, who worked in former Vice President Joe Biden’s office as director of public engagement and for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection, has been named states director, campaign sources told POLITICO.

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The moves are an attempt by O’Rourke to shift toward a more mainstream operation after a Senate run in which his campaign focused heavily — almost indiscriminately — on voter turnout. Though O’Rourke’s effort in Texas resulted in a closer-than-expected loss to Cruz, his advisers have acknowledged that campaigning against a field of other high-profile Democrats will require a more precise targeting of voters, especially in early-nominating states.

O’Rourke’s efforts to bring veteran staffers on board has come as a relief to supporters who feared his unorthodox campaign in Texas — largely an effort to turn out hundreds of thousands of inactive voters — lacked the discipline necessary for a presidential campaign.

Still, O’Rourke is trying to replicate successful elements of his Senate run. That includes some version of a “distributed organizing” model of field organizing in which the campaign recruits and trains volunteers to run their own outreach programs on O’Rourke’s behalf.

In addition to Brainerd and a yet-to-be-named deputy, O’Rourke has hired seven staffers for the national organizing arm of his campaign, all of whom worked on O’Rourke’s Senate race.

“Our campaign started out with the benefit of one of the most innovative and remarkable organizing teams in Democratic politics,” campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, an Obama veteran and data expert, said in a statement. “These folks dramatically raised the bar on voter engagement and turnout in Texas for the first time in generations. With Lise and Lauren joining our growing team, our grass-roots campaign is ideally positioned to make history across the nation in the same way: by reaching every household in every neighborhood in every community, and talking with Americans of all beliefs and backgrounds about Beto’s vision for a united, prosperous, and secure America.”

The transition from O’Rourke’s Senate campaign to his presidential run has not always been smooth. O’Rourke’s recent hires come after the departure of Becky Bond and Zack Malitz, two senior strategists who worked on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign and Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential effort — both evangelists for the distributed organizing model. Their exits, along with the arrival of Obama and Clinton alums in leadership positions, drew skepticism from some progressives about the influence of establishment forces on O’Rourke’s campaign.

O’Rourke is also starting relatively late in the primary season to assemble his national staff. O’Malley Dillon only recently moved to El Paso, Texas, to begin working at his headquarters there.

But O’Malley Dillon, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee and deputy campaign manager to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, is bringing on a roster of staffers with long experience in the Democratic Party.

Clavel, a former chief of staff to then-Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), was Virginia state director for Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. Brainerd worked as a regional organizing director for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and campaign director for the Virginia Democratic Party.

Before Brainerd and Clavel were unveiled, the campaign announced the hiring of Jeff Berman, Obama’s venerated delegate selection director and a delegate strategist for Clinton in 2016, as his senior adviser for delegate strategy.

Rob Flaherty, the former deputy digital communications director for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and creative director of the progressive super PAC Priorities USA, has also joined O’Rourke.

Despite a hoopla-filled campaign launch and frenzied few months on the stump — O’Rourke’s done more than 150 events since March — the former Texas congressman slumped to about 5 percent nationally in the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. He acknowledged last week that he needs to “do a better job” reaching a national audience and is set to participate in a CNN town hall Tuesday.

“What the hell happened?” President Donald Trump said of O’Rourke last week. “Beto’s falling fast.”

But supporters and Democrats familiar with his Senate campaign say his recent hires are an encouraging sign he recognizes the flaws of his Senate run and is determined to correct course.

“If he did not learn from his last race, that would be shocking malpractice, and it sounds like he has,” said Chris Lippincott, an Austin-based consultant who ran a super PAC opposing Cruz in the 2018 Senate campaign.

O’Rourke eschewed the modern trappings of a typical campaign apparatus last year, set on doing it his way. “It was an incomplete campaign. And I mean that mechanically. They should have had consultants. They should have had pollsters. They should have gone negative, much more negative, much, much faster,” Lippincott said.

Despite O'Rourke's slide in most polls, his campaign has been touting a recent CNN survey that showed him beating Trump in a hypothetical matchup by a wider margin — 10 percentage points — than other top-tier Democrat. The $9.4 million that O’Rourke raised in the first quarter of the year will likely keep him competitive deep into the primary regardless of his position in the polls. And he is assembling seasoned staffers in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire to prepare ground operations in those early-nominating states, even as he continues to build out his national operation.

“I just think it’s a strong signal to Beto’s fans that he’s not messing around,” said New Hampshire Democratic activist Jay Surdukowski, who co-chaired Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign in the state. “And I think that’s good. He can be as much of a maverick as he wants, and at the end of the day there are certain things you have to do to win, and I think he’s doing them.”

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