O'Rourke tests whether do-it-yourself campaign can work on 2020 stage

Little more than a week into his presidential bid, Beto O’Rourke is trying to hold on to the do-it-yourself approach to campaigning that defined his 2018 Senate run in Texas.

Rather than filling massive event halls with supporters and prospective voters, O’Rourke has hewed towards smaller venues. Instead of delivering rousing speeches from behind a lectern, the former congressman has taken to standing on countertops at coffee shops.

And a Dodge Caravan that O’Rourke himself insists on driving to events himself has emerged as a symbol of the candidate’s home-grown approach to campaigning.

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O’Rourke’s do-it-yourself style, his supporters say, is part of the El Paso Democrat’s appeal.

But it remains unclear just how long that strategy will work, especially after the primary season broadens beyond a handful of early-voting states.

Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program Sanders targets gig economy as part of new labor plan Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill MORE (D-N.Y.), said that O’Rourke’s unpolished approach to campaigning has fared well for him, so far.

“The model that he had in Texas really worked for him and there’s no reason why it doesn’t work now,” Reinish said. “If he can put in the time and go to places where Democrats usually don’t go – go find the voters – it’s working for him.”

But he cautioned that O’Rourke would eventually have to put together a political infrastructure capable of shouldering the burden of a fast-paced, nationwide campaign.

“Eventually it is going to have to be a bigger and more-staffed and more-organized web or else it’s going to, I think, become too big for even the most motivated person to manage,” Reinish said. “It’s going to involve getting on planes, and putting operatives and advance staff in a lot of places at once.”

During his Senate bid against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (R-Texas) last year, O’Rourke often eschewed the help of political operatives and strategists typical of campaigns, and instead embraced a do-it-yourself flair: town hall events, perennial live streams on social media and visits to each of Texas’ 254 counties.

In his first week on the campaign trail, O’Rourke appeared poised to hew to that same style.

He embarked on a road trip that started in Iowa, took him through Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and ended with a 48-hour blitz through all 10 counties in New Hampshire.

That was followed by a series of stops over the weekend in South Carolina and Nevada, completing a circuit of the four states where voters will cast the first ballots of the 2020 primary season.

David Polyansky, a senior adviser to Cruz’s 2018 reelection bid against O’Rourke, said that the El Paso Democrat’s intimate style of campaigning carries enormous weight in these early primary states, which can make or break presidential candidacies early on.

“Regardless of who you are or what your campaign’s financial situation looks like, if you don’t do the hard work required to secure wins in the early states, you simply won’t have a chance to play anywhere else," Polyansky said. “His high-tempo personality coupled with his ability to non-stop campaign is an especially huge asset in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and beyond.”

But as more states come into play, Polyansky said, O’Rourke would have to confront the prospect of a broader political operation.

“It’s a tough balance in presidential politics, at least on the primary side, of how you appropriately allocate your resources, your time, between the critical need to score an early victory while strategically expanding into the type of effort required for the broader nationwide fight that will follow,” he said.

“It’s incredibly challenging for any campaign to reallocate and expand in the middle of political combat.”

O’Rourke already appears to be putting in place the kind of organizing tactics that powered his 2018 Senate bid when he leaned heavily on a network of lower-level staffers and volunteers to organize phone banking and texting operations.

A day before O’Rourke announced that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, his team began emailing volunteers from his Senate run, asking for help sending text messages in the wake of a campaign roll out.

Days later, O’Rourke’s campaign sent a fundraising pitch to supporters, saying that the former congressman’s 2020 operation needed “to raise enough resources now to run a nationwide campaign” and train volunteers.

"We know from experience that the best way to help volunteers succeed is if our campaign staff provide them with the right tools, resources and training," O’Rourke’s team wrote in an email.

That strategy is emblematic of a kind of field operation known as “distributed organizing,” which fueled Sen. Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 candidates have the chance to embrace smarter education policies Bernie Sanders Adviser talks criminal justice reform proposal, 'Medicare for All' plan Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona MORE (I-Vt.) meteoric rise in the 2016 presidential race and was later put to use by O’Rourke’s team in 2018.

While O’Rourke’s staff remains skeletal, for now, there are signs of a larger organization forming.

Becky Bond, who served as an adviser to O’Rourke’s Senate campaign, and David Wysong, the El Paso Democrat’s former chief of staff, have been quietly working behind the scenes for months to assemble the trappings of a White House campaign.

And O’Rourke is said to be close to naming Jen O’Malley Dillon, a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, as his campaign manager.

His 2020 bid will get a more formal rollout later this month when O’Rourke is slated to hold a series of rallies in his home state of Texas – a trio of events that includes stops in El Paso, Houston and Austin.

Nate Lerner, the co-founder of Draft Beto, a political action committee formed in December to lure O’Rourke into the presidential race, said that his group was also exploring ways to support O’Rourke’s nascent campaign.

That could include laying a rough groundwork for O’Rourke in states “that are a little further down on the primary schedule.”

“We would love to start building better infrastructure in those areas, where other campaigns aren’t looking at right now,” Lerner said, noting that come Super Tuesday, when voters in 10 states will head to the polls, O’Rourke won’t be able to “be everywhere at once.”

To be sure, O’Rourke’s campaign – along with the rest of the Democratic primary field – is still in its formative stages, and whether his brand of politicking can scale to the level of a presidential campaign remains to be seen.

But of little doubt is O’Rourke’s ability to attract wall-to-wall media coverage. That attention could prove useful for O’Rourke beyond the diners and town halls of Iowa and New Hampshire, Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said.

“He can’t win a national campaign doing what he’s doing now, but I think there will be an all-day TV campaign around what he is doing,” Bannon said.

“What he’s doing at the local level, they’re marketing nationally,” he added. “He’s one of those candidates where all you have to do is stand on a tabletop somewhere and he’s going to get surrounded by national media.”