O’Malley, who wrote last week in the Des Moines Register that he sees O’Rourke as “the new leader who can bring us together,” has been encouraging the effort behind the scenes, after meeting privately in December with O’Rourke in Washington.
That enthusiasm helped push former O’Malley advisers in South Carolina, consultant Tyler Jones and former legislator Boyd Brown, to volunteer for the group. They were joined by Michael Soneff, a former communications adviser to the Nevada Democratic Party, who has taken on the task of organizing Nevada and California.
The group has been interviewing potential Iowa operatives as well, with the hopes of announcing a new adviser in that state later this week.
“I had a long conversation with Governor O’Malley,” said Brown, who co-chaired O’Malley’s 2016 campaign in South Carolina. “Martin’s words to me were, ‘I am seeing green lights and some yellow lights, but no red lights.’ ”
Brown said that a mutual friend had connected him with O’Rourke and that they he had “traded a couple of texts” that did not include any admission from O’Rourke of his presidential ambitions.”
O’Malley did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for O’Rourke said the congressman was not in contact with the Draft Beto effort.
“I have got experience building campaign structure in South Carolina, and if I need to hand it off, I will hand it off,” Brown said. “We are taking a shot in the dark here.”
O’Rourke became a Democratic star last year after raising nearly $79 million in his losing race against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Since then, O’Rourke has fanned speculation that he is leaning toward a presidential campaign by backing away from the denials he made during the Senate race and meeting with former president Barack Obama.
Draft efforts have been a mainstay of presidential politics since the advent of online fundraising. The current Draft Beto effort differs from the others in that all the fundraising so far has been for an ActBlue account that will be held in escrow and then delivered to O’Rourke’s campaign should he decide to run.
One of the group’s founders, Nate Lerner, said he has so far paid the only expenses — about $1,500 — out of his own pocket. The group, which began in mid-December, has so far raised about $15,000 from 300 people, with about 5,000 email sign-ups, Lerner said.
“The Beto campaign isn’t secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes,” he added.
Lerner said he had not communicated with O’Rourke, but he expected the group would reach out soon to share what it has been doing. He said the group was likely to mount distinct fundraising efforts in the future for specific projects, such as Draft Beto billboards in early primary states.
A separate draft effort, DraftBeto2020.org, was started last year by a group of New England political strategists and has published an organizing guide to encourage volunteers around the country to hold house parties.
Will Herberich, one of the founders, said his group was interested in working with the similarly named DraftBeto.org. “We’re excited that people all over the country are rallying behind the goal,” he said. “We’re looking forward to working together.”
O’Rourke’s ability to attract early-state talent without any personal efforts is notable in an election cycle in which more than 20 Democratic candidates actively exploring campaigns have scrambled for talent. Both Soneff and Jones said they had been approached by other potential campaigns but opted instead to run an unpaid effort without a committed candidate.
“My barometer is, who would I want to get out of my house to go see speak?” Jones said Monday. “Just in the last 24 hours I have had lots of people reach out to me and say, ‘I am going to support him if he runs.’ Some of those people are elected officials.”
Jones was the state director for O’Malley in 2016 and helped Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) win the state’s marquee House race last year, giving Democrats a takeover of a seat previously held by former governor Mark Sanford, who had been defeated in the Republican primary.
“Tyler being a part of [of the Draft Beto effort], that is a big deal just because of his political background and his ability to run a race in South Carolina,” said Amanda Loveday, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Jones, Brown and Soneff said they would work in the coming weeks on building a fundraising and organizing network in the state, which O’Rourke could take over if he decides to run.
“We have more people throwing themselves at the campaign than we know what to do with,” said Soneff, who said many have reached out to him since he signed on to marshal support in the West. “We’ve got artists who want to paint walls.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified who connected Boyd Brown, a South Carolina Democratic strategist, with Beto O’Rourke by cell phone. It was a mutual friend, not former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. The story has been revised.