The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden adjusts strategy in Midwestern battlegrounds to blunt Trump’s ‘law and order’ focus

President Trump views a damaged business Tuesday during a visit to Kenosha, Wis., in the aftermath of protests against police brutality and racial injustice and the violence that accompanied them after a police officer shot a Black man in the back. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Last week’s Republican convention had just concluded when Joe Biden’s top strategists began hearing from worried Democrats. They told the officials that President Trump’s singular focus on a “law and order” message, coupled with images of violence in cities, threatened Biden’s standing, particularly among White voters in the industrial Midwest.

Over the past few days, Biden has offered his response, reorienting his campaign. He delivered a forceful anti-Trump speech in Pittsburgh, afterward bringing pizza to a firehouse. He began giving newfound attention to Minnesota, a state Democrats haven’t lost in nearly 50 years, and his campaign is eyeing potential trips to Wisconsin and Michigan.

Biden also began running ads in places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — three states that secured the presidency for Trump in 2016 — that show empty football stadiums and text that reads, “Trump put America on the sidelines. Let’s get back in the game.”

Trump, before a Tuesday trip to Kenosha, Wis., to view riot damage, announced that he had spoken with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren about launching the conference’s college football season in the fall.

The moves by the two candidates highlight the Upper Midwest as the 2020 campaign’s most crucial battleground. Both men are spending heavily on television ads and have engaged in an arms race over campaign signs that are now dotting suburban homes and rural farmland in the region.

Supporters and protesters lined up in Kenosha, Wis., as President Trump visited on Sept. 1. Meanwhile, Jacob Blake's family urged the community to unite. (Video: Sam Paakkonen/The Washington Post)

The unrest in Kenosha and Portland, Ore., appeared to have caught the Biden campaign off-guard, but advisers say his nationally televised speech on Monday reset their effort. The aim was to reaffirm Biden’s objections to violence and looting while redefining the safety of Americans as freedom not only from urban clashes but also from the coronavirus pandemic and economic turmoil, the campaign’s prior focus.

“I understand why folks might be a little anxious — we’re all anxious about a lot of things because nothing is normal right now,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “But in terms of this week, and this speech, I think Joe Biden showed that he can lead. . . . The law-and-order issue by itself is Trump exploiting fear. And people are beginning to hear those dog whistles and see them for what they are.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who represents a large swatch of Macomb County, a critical battleground in the Detroit suburbs that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before backing Trump in 2016, was among those who contacted the campaign, seeking more urgency. Levin has been eager for Biden to travel to the state before early voting starts in a few weeks.

“I don’t need Biden here on Nov. 2,” he said. “I need him here — I’m pushing for him as early as possible, before all the absentee balloting gets going.”

He said he has heard from a number of lukewarm Biden supporters who felt reassured by his Monday speech.

“I’m hearing a lot of relief, and I’m hearing a lot of, ‘Okay, this is an organizing principle about how to handle this,’ ” Levin said.

Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and a Biden friend, also reached out to his campaign last week. He said he was worried that Biden had been too flat-footed in his response.

“What we were afraid of is moderates saying, ‘I hate Donald Trump, but I need to be safe. I have to hold my nose and vote for him,’ ” Rendell said.

“The mood was nervous at the end of the Republican convention,” he added. “The mood is extremely better after Pittsburgh. But it can’t be a one-off. He has to give that message over and over.”

Rendell and others have urged Biden to drop a relatively laissez faire campaign schedule. While Biden had previously pointed to Labor Day as a starting point for accelerating his travel, his campaign this week scrambled to place him in venues in the Midwest.

“Look, the time period he’s been in Wilmington, from March 10 to present, he’s gone up 7 or 8 points in the national polls. How can you quibble with that?” Rendell said. “But the time is now, it’s time to start getting out. It’s time to respond. It’s time to get tough.”

Throughout the campaign, Biden aides have grown accustomed to — and wary of — Democrats who question every move and worry at every tightening poll, a group derisively referred to as “bed-wetters” by less anxious Democrats. Biden’s campaign aides referred to actions taken to satisfy them as “Operation Rubber Sheets.”

“We are not panicked. But we are aware that, yeah, this is going to be a fight. After the Republican convention, we now know their playbook,” said a Biden campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

But Biden’s response this week suggested his campaign saw signs the worried supporters were right. It began airing ads in Minnesota one week earlier than planned that reminded voters of Biden’s background and plans. The state was only narrowly won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, and some Biden advisers consider it the likeliest state to flip to Trump.

One ad, a 60-second spot called “What Happens Now,” focused on the devastation that happens when people lose health insurance, can’t find a job or can’t pay rent amid the pandemic. Another, a 30-second ad called “Backbone,” emphasizes Biden’s middle-class upbringing and Scranton, Pa., roots as a contrast to Trump’s wealthier background.

Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), plans to host a virtual event on Wednesday aimed at voters in Minnesota. When asked during a fundraiser on Tuesday how the campaign will reach White, working-class voters, Harris sought to broaden the framework.

“Those voters are the ones who are now, a number of them — we’re talking about working-class voters regardless of their race — unemployed,” she said. Trump, she added, “has not even made a real attempt at helping these working people stay above water so that they can get back on their feet when we get through this crisis.”

Trump’s campaign advisers could hardly contain their glee Tuesday that Biden was spending resources in a state that Republicans haven’t carried since 1972.

“He’s on defense,” Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, told reporters. “That would be like our campaign scheduling a trip to the reddest state in the country. It shows how the president has changed the map and how Joe Biden and the Democrats’ radical policies aren’t playing in the Midwest like they used to.”

Trump’s campaign plans to spend $14 million in Minnesota between now and Election Day, it said. But Trump is also being pressured into spending money in Georgia, which has been a reliably Republican state where polls show Biden to be competitive.

Democrats in Minnesota have tracked a steady erosion in popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement and police overhauls since the early summer, said a Democrat familiar with the data, who attributed it to a backlash over protesters’ calls to “defund the police.” Polls continue to show Biden leading in the state, said the person, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal information.

Republicans, meanwhile, have seized on the “law and order” message to help win down-ballot races. A recent mailer sent from the state Republican Party to voters in the district of state Sen. Matt Little (of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) accused him of siding “with the anti-police movement” and equated a vote for him with a vote to defund the police.

“I do not support defunding or dismantling,” Little wrote in a response on Facebook. “They’re lying because the truth doesn’t fit their strategy.”

Central to Biden’s success is maintaining the support of voters like Kevin King, a 59-year-old retired Marine from Alexandria, Minn., an overwhelmingly White and rural area whose economy relies on agriculture and tourism.

A onetime Republican who identifies as politically conservative, King harbors a deep disdain for Trump, who he says lacks character and good judgment. He changed his political affiliation in 2016 and voted for Clinton “with zero enthusiasm” and will do so again in November for Biden, he said.

“I’m not at all a Biden fan,” he said. “The only thing I liked about him was that he wasn’t Bernie Sanders and he wasn’t Donald Trump.”

He and his three siblings, he said, are split between Biden and Trump. Their political calculations are largely informed by their diverging religious views.

“I have two sisters who are Trump supporters. Their sole issue is abortion, politically. Everything else is secondary,” he said, noting he grew up in an evangelical Christian household.

He said he sensed that Trump’s broad-brush characterization of a largely peaceful protest movement as violent and chaotic has gained political traction locally. He increasingly hears people say things like, “We don’t want to be like Minneapolis” — the site of protests following the police killing of George Floyd there.

He was happy to hear Biden’s sharp critiques of Trump on Monday.

“I thought he was very forceful and said exactly what needed to be said. I thought he was very impressive yesterday,” he said. “And he was on the teleprompter. You know what happens when Uncle Joe goes off script.”

Jose A. Del Real, Michael Scherer and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.