Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke stands on a chair amid a crowd of students on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa., on Tuesday. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Faced with the prospect of a long and divisive Democratic primary season, liberal groups are kick-starting the general election in targeted swing states with plans for paid advertising campaigns attacking President Trump’s economic record.

Using a direct-to-camera style, the efforts will lean heavily on testimony from working-class voters who say Trump has let them down by repeatedly siding with wealthy interests amid slow wage growth and rising health-care costs.

One spot by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA that is part of a six-figure digital ad buy launched this week features a retired union steelworker, with a gruff voice and a close-cropped mustache, casually cursing as he describes Indiana workers who lost their jobs after Trump vowed to stop companies from moving jobs overseas.

“People clapped. People cried. They wanted something to believe in,” Chuck Jones, the former president of an Indianapolis steelworkers union says in the ad. He then uses an unprintable word to describe what happened next to hundreds of workers at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis. Trump had visited the plant weeks after his election, vowing to save workers’ jobs.

Jones says: “I had to tell the people their jobs were going to Mexico. They were devastated. People lost their health care and their retirement. Working people have got to fight back.”

The efforts are meant to offset what Democrats see as an uncomfortable imbalance in the 2020 race: They are likely to go more than a year before selecting a nominee, while Trump retains daily use of his megaphone at the White House to attack Democrats as extremists.

Priorities USA has promised to spend $100 million on broadcast and digital ads in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida before Democrats pick a nominee. A second group, American Bridge, which has historically focused on opposition research, has begun fundraising for a $50 million expansion that will be devoted to a similar paid campaign to persuade voters in the same states that Trump has let them down.

A third group backed by labor unions and billionaire Tom Steyer, For Our Future, will be deploying $80 million this cycle for a voter contact campaign starting in the coming months that will target hard-to-reach voters this year in a broader group of potential swing states. And the political operation for former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has begun planning a voter targeting and advertising effort focused on the nominating phase that could spend more than the $115 million invested in the 2018 elections, according to aides who were not authorized to speak publicly.

“We are facing a long nominating process in our party, leaving a gaping hole that, if not filled, could set Trump up for a second term,” reads a fundraising pitch being circulated by American Bridge.

Trump’s political advisers, aware of his potential vulnerabilities among blue-collar voters in states that gave him his narrow win in 2016, have been working to blunt the coming onslaught. On Wednesday, Trump flew to Lima, Ohio, to announce 400 new jobs at a military tank factory, and he plans to travel next week to Michigan for another event.

“Our playbook is pretty open. We are not shy about how we won last time and how we are going to win again,” said a person close to the Trump campaign who was not authorized to speak publicly.


Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) meets Nevada voters during a town-hall-style event in a gymnasium at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, on March 1. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

That person dismissed the work of the outside groups as an effort to paper over the damage the party’s candidates will do to each other in the primary campaign.

“They have to do this,” the person said. “No matter the party, no matter the election year, primaries have bruising consequences for every candidate.”

Republican outside groups are also gearing up for a fight, with the conservative group Club for Growth already debuting an ad targeting Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who entered the presidential race last week. After raising $75 million in the 2018 cycle, the Trump-backing super PAC America First Action is also planning major spending in the election, though the bulk of those funds will probably target the Democratic nominee next year.

“We all know what the battleground states look like. Both sides are going to engage in massive turnout. So it is going to come down to these slices of the electorate,” said America First Action president Brian O. Walsh.

Much of the Democratic independent effort, which is allowed by law to raise money in unlimited amounts, will be coordinated through Priorities USA, which has been the primary outside advertising group supporting the Democratic presidential campaigns since 2012.

The group oversaw Democratic digital spending in the 2018 midterm elections and holds regular meetings with dozens of liberal groups to coordinate advertising and messaging. This year, Priorities USA will start a separate meeting to coordinate media operations of outside groups, especially in the key swing states, with the goal of pushing news coverage critical of Trump.

Early polling and data analysis by Priorities USA have indicated that a significant number of people who did not vote for the Democratic nominee in 2016, either because they stayed home or supported Trump, can be won over in 2020 with an emphasis on their economic concerns and disillusion with corruption in Washington.

“One of the things we have found is that while the targets for persuasion and mobilization are somewhat different from one another, the messages that mobilize and persuade are pretty similar across those two groups,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has helped develop the Priorities USA messaging.

“The concerns about the costs of health care and wages not keeping up with the cost of living are common to those two groups,” Garin said. “The perception that Trump looks out for the wealthy is common for those two groups.”

The American Bridge program, which is still being developed, envisions separate paid advertising and public relations efforts by local messengers focused on working class, exurban and rural voters in the three targeted Midwestern states and, possibly, Florida. The plan includes an emphasis on rural radio advertising.

A fundraising pitch by the group said the goal of the campaign would be “softening up Trump’s numbers with key sections of his coalition.”

“We understand that we may not win these voters back entirely, but if we don’t make inroads into these areas, we will win the popular vote, lose the electoral college and the Senate could be lost for a decade,” the pitch reads.

American Bridge says it has gathered more than 176 gigabytes of Trump research that could be used in the general election, and the group is exploring legal structures that will allow it to share that research, including 24,000 video and audio files, with the Democratic nominee.

The group was founded by David Brock, a former conservative journalist who became a liberal activist, and it plans to continue researching and collecting video for House, Senate and state campaigns. To aid the new fundraising effort for swing-state messaging, the group is adding former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who ran for Senate in Florida last year, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell to its board of directors, which also includes former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.

The Bloomberg effort, though still undefined, has hired a roster of talent connected to the last two Democratic presidential efforts, including Brynne Craig, a political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign; David Plouffe, a former campaign manager to Barack Obama; and Dan Wagner, a data scientist who worked on both Obama campaigns.

The grass-roots outreach will be run again by For Our Future, which knocks on doors to reach targeted voters who might not otherwise vote, especially in black and Hispanic communities. The group has decided to focus this year on seven states, adding Ohio, Virginia and Nevada to the list used by Priorities.

Initial voter contacts are aimed at gathering information on what issues move key voters, which is then shared with other outside groups working on the 2020 race. Later this year, the door-to-door efforts will shift to messaging about Trump.

“We are going to work in a much more highly coordinated fashion,” For Our Future CEO Justin Myers said. “We are going to make sure that all the groups are talking to each other.”