LAS VEGAS — Well, there’s yet another Democrat in the presidential race. His first order of business? Poaching supporters of the last one out.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick held a conference call Sunday evening to court several dozen people from around the country who volunteered on the now-defunct campaign of ex-Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The call came the evening of Patrick’s first big candidate forum of the race at the Nevada Democratic Party’s “First in the West” event.
Patrick spoke on the call, followed by Abe Rakov, Patrick’s campaign manager who was O’Rourke’s early states director. Rakov pitched Patrick as a progressive who can deliver results and appeal to different ideological factions of the Democratic Party as well as racial and ethnic minorities, according to a source on the call, which was organized at the request of a few former O’Rourke supporters.
It was not said outright, but the subtext of his pitch was clear: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are polling incredibly well, but their progressive platforms make some Democrats nervous. Meanwhile, the preeminent moderate in the race, former Vice President Joe Biden, is drooping in early primary states. Filling the void is Pete Buttigieg, a 38-year-old small-town mayor with limited governing experience and meager support among black voters, which also makes some Democrats nervous. That may leave an opening for Patrick.
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Not to be outdone, the Biden campaign has also dispatched a high profile surrogate to court Betoheads. Michelle Kwan, the former Olympic figure skater who is now a Biden campaign official, met with about 20 former Beto volunteers during the California Democratic Party Convention at a restaurant in Long Beach on Saturday.
In addition to taking selfies with the crew, Kwan noted that Warren and Sanders are polling well in early states, but stressed that the campaign feels Biden is still in a strong position because his steady support nationwide would earn him enough delegates to win the race — especially because he has solid support among African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. She urged the group not to listen to Twitter pundits predicting a Biden collapse, according to a source in the room.
Jessica Mejia, Biden’s California state director, and Molly Ritner, the campaign’s Super Tuesday coordinator, also attended the meeting, as did various other potential Biden supporters. Buttigieg’s recent surge in Iowa and New Hampshire did not come up.
In an interview with VICE News at the party event in the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, Patrick denied that his run is an indictment of anyone else’s candidacy. He said he wanted to run earlier, but his wife was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Now that she’s cancer free, he’s all in.
Still, his message sounds an awful lot like someone pursuing a lane through other candidates’ perceived or real weaknesses: He is staking out a middle ground, for instance opposing Medicare for All and favoring a public option, while welcoming some help from outside PAC spenders and stressing his governing experience.
“There are opportunities to unify not just members of the party but citizens of our country and I have had some experience with that,” he told VICE News. “This has got to be about everyone everywhere. I'm gonna do my best and organize our campaigns so that we project that. And I think as we do, we will win and we will deserve to win.”
Democratic pollster John Zogby said he thinks donors and establishment types are hedging their bets by encouraging not just Patrick but also former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run. They fear an imminent Biden decline, he said, while other experienced moderates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar make only modest gains and others, like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, barely register with voters.
“Ultimately when the primaries are done, more than likely, the convention is going to have a leading moderate candidate and a leading progressive candidate,” Zogby said. “And so if Biden actually does fail, or flag or not meet expectations, or makes a huge mistake, who carries the Biden mantle?”
Picking off former Beto supporters would be a shrewd move for Patrick or Biden. The so-called Beto Road Warriors, who traveled around the country to hype O’Rourke, often on their own dime, had been among the most fanatical groups at high-profile events like the Polk County Steak Fry in Iowa.
Their continued support is not something O’Rourke seems to be taking for granted, even after his candidacy: He held a call with former California-based volunteers Sunday evening, appearing with his wife Amy via video chat — post-candidacy beard and all — to thank them for their work.
If any of his team does switch allegiances, they have somewhat of a limited pool to choose from. Many supporters have ties to Texas and are hoping for a fairly middle-of-the-road candidate who will not risk a backlash in the Lone Star State in a year when Democrats are poised to make big electoral gains there. Some candidates who might fit that profile have turned off many O’Rourke supporters by publicly squabbling with him and abetting his decline, including Buttigieg, Warren, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Juliàn Castro. Some supporters hold out hope of an O’Rourke vice presidency.
Meanwhile, that some in the Democratic party apparatus might be hand wringing about a potential Buttigieg candidacy is not a surprise; other candidates in the race have done so openly.
On Sunday, Castro told reporters that he doesn’t think Buttigieg has the experience or enough support in the black community to be the Democratic nominee.
“This is nothing personal against Mayor Buttigieg, but this is about vetting somebody to become president of the United States and you're going to have to stand toe-to-toe against Donald Trump and make the argument for why people should elect you,” he said. “I just don't think the argument’s there with Mayor Buttigieg.”
For his part, Buttigieg projected strength. He has some reason to, as he has begun to lead the pack in Iowa, but his polling in the early states of Nevada and South Carolina lags far behind the top three candidates, as it does in the crucial state of California.
“We've been uniquely able to speak to the experiences of being in the middle of the country, guiding an economy that was left for dead at the beginning of this decade,” Buttigieg told reporters after a forum in Los Angeles on Sunday. “It's the story of my community and my life, and I think that story is resonating with more and more people as we get the chance to share it.”
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, the Beto supporters aren’t the only ones who got the impression that Patrick’s run, and Bloomberg’s potential run, are a reaction to the strength of Sanders and Warren campaigns. Fellow Democratic candidate Andrew Yang told VICE News during the California convention that party elites and donors are anxious.
“They see that two of the three or four frontrunners are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and they're afraid that that a particular economic perspective might be represented in the White House that doesn't align with theirs,” Yang said
Yang also added that he thinks any latecomers to the race will be entering at a significant disadvantage compared to the candidates who have been chugging along building support for months — not to mention they will miss filing deadlines in some states.
“It's going to be very, very hard to replace thousands of in-person, face-to-face conversations with other ad buys or some kind of hurry-up campaign,” he said.
Back in Las Vegas, Patrick welcomed the challenge.
“Don't count us out. People have, people have. I started my first run for governor of Massachusetts with 1% name recognition,” he said. “Just watch. Keep an open mind.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick campaigns Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, at The Bridge Cafe in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)