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‘Win where we won’: As Trump’s campaign boasts of going on offense, its efforts appear squarely aimed at defending his 2016 map

President Trump on July 15 defended a tweet critics called “racist” and said freshmen minority congresswomen use “anti-Semitic language” and “love” al-Qaeda. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Reuters)

President Trump’s reelection campaign has boasted about efforts to expand the 2020 electoral map and compete in far-flung Democratic territory from Oregon to New Mexico while along the way winning over some of the voters who have been turned off by aspects of his presidency.

But the president has held all his campaign rallies this year in states he won in 2016 — including Florida and Pennsylvania, and in North Carolina on Wednesday night. And he has shown no interest in toning down the incendiary rhetoric that has made him unpopular among black, Hispanic and female voters. Just this week, he plunged the nation into another divisive battle over race after saying that four minority Democratic congresswomen “hate our country” and urging them to leave.

Facing stubbornly low poll numbers, an energized Democratic opposition and the prospect of record-high voter turnout, the campaign is mounting an all-out effort to protect the states Trump won in 2016, while also trying to expand the map, according to campaign officials, Republican advisers and strategists.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on July 16 said President Trump’s tweets to minority congresswomen were not racist. (Video: Reuters)

The plan includes solidifying and maximizing the support of Trump’s base in a handful of key states while making marginal inroads with some of the constituencies wary of the president, officials said.

As public and private polls show a narrowing path to reelection, campaign officials acknowledge that their immediate goal is to shore up support for the president in places such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — states where Democrats have made gains since Trump’s victory almost three years ago.

“Certainly, first we want to win where we won in 2016,” said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, adding that a record fundraising pace allows the campaign to consider investing in additional states, including Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire.

The campaign plans to introduce a new mobile application in the coming weeks aimed at engaging its most loyal supporters. Known internally as the “Trump app” and set to be released as soon as within the next month, the feature is part of an effort by campaign manager Brad Parscale to increase enthusiasm among supporters and capitalize on the energy at rallies.

Trump loyalists who download the app will be able to use it to register to vote, recruit additional supporters and stay up to date on what Trump is doing, said one campaign official familiar with the development who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. It will include incentives for those who volunteer, facilitate neighborhood watch parties and help in other ways, the official said. For instance, supporters waiting in line to attend a rally who get a dozen friends to download the app might earn VIP seats once inside.

The campaign is also seeking to improve Trump’s losing margins among suburban women, Hispanics and black voters, officials said.

But that challenge was laid bare in recent days after Trump posted racist tweets aimed at four minority Democratic congresswomen who he said should “go back” to their home countries and “fix” them instead of “telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.” The four lawmakers are U.S. citizens, and three of them were born in the United States.

Rather than seek to quell the controversy, Trump has only escalated his attacks on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) since he tweeted Sunday.

“She looks down with contempt on hard-working Americans,” Trump said Wednesday in a lengthy diatribe against Omar during his rally. At one point, he paused as the crowd erupted in chants of “Send her back!”

Trump allies are seeking to harness the power of the president’s base ahead of what campaign officials and outside observers predict will be a high-turnout election.

“The president can turn out his base like no other president ever seen before in my lifetime,” said Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman at America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC. “He has a way of exciting people to get them to the polls.”

The group has initial plans to invest in only six states during this campaign , officials said.

“The pool of states that will decide the 2020 election is narrower than ever, and Trump is delusional if he thinks he has a chance at winning Oregon or New Mexico,” said David Wasserman, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report. “But he does have a narrow path to reelection — through the same states that he won in 2016.”

But with polls showing Trump behind Democrats in key states — and underwater among several critical voting groups — Wasserman said the president’s play-to-the-base strategy appears increasingly questionable, even in those states.

While Trump continues to focus on immigration and fire off incendiary tweets, campaign officials are working to improve his standing with the kind of voters who have been repelled by aspects of the presidency that most please the base.

Campaign aides say they aren’t worried that the controversy over the president’s attacks on the congresswomen will complicate that plan.

“The President’s record of accomplishments strongly appeals to all voters, including women, blacks, Latinos, and everyone else,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “He is focused on keeping America great, which is why it frustrates him when elected officials consistently say disparaging things about this country.”

On Tuesday, the Trump campaign held a “Women for Trump” kickoff event in King of Prussia, Pa. — targeting a group that has trended away from Republicans during Trump’s presidency. It comes three weeks after Vice President Pence traveled to Florida to launch “Latinos for Trump,” an effort to improve the president’s margins with key voters in the nation’s largest swing state.

Over the next two weeks, Trump will hold a pair of rallies in cities with sizable black populations, traveling to Greenville, N.C., on Wednesday and Cincinnati on Aug. 1, to tout his record on the economy and criminal justice. The campaign also plans to soon assemble a coalition of African American supporters.

The moves are an acknowledgment that appealing only to Trump’s base probably won’t be enough to propel him to reelection.

Trump won the electoral college in 2016 by eking out slim victories over Hillary Clinton in the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats made gains in all three of those states and several others during the 2018 midterm elections, and the party’s voters remain energized by the prospect of ending Trump’s presidency.

One campaign adviser said those three states are the ones Trump allies are most worried about. Like others, the adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Trump can lose two of those states and still narrowly win reelection, if he holds all of the other states he won in 2016.

Trump’s slim victories in the Midwest in 2016 came in part because of lackluster turnout among voters in traditionally Democratic bastions such as Detroit and Milwaukee. Both parties predict that such voter apathy will not be the case next year, with the president’s allies and opponents expecting record turnout.

“Wisconsin is balanced on a knife’s edge,” said Ben Wikler, the Democratic Party chairman in the state, which has 10 electoral college votes. “Trump is a profoundly polarizing figure, and he has his die-hard supporters. But he also has die-hard opponents.”

Internal polling that was leaked to the news media last month showed Trump far behind some of the Democratic candidates in several swing states, and a potentially competitive race in Texas. Trump campaign officials said the numbers were outdated and an inaccurate reflection of where things stand.

Still, the data mirrored public polling that highlights how precarious the president’s position is 16 months before he will face voters again, despite a strong economy.

The president’s campaign has expressed confidence that he will be able to run and win on his record and the economy once his opponent is fully defined. Some of the campaign’s confidence comes from its assessment of the Democratic field. Campaign officials have said Trump is benefiting from the contentious Democratic primary contest, as the candidates fight one another and shift leftward on issues such as immigration and health care.

“Each debate is going to be a treasure trove of content we’re going to be able to bank,” one campaign adviser said.

The campaign is also flush with cash and expects to be fully funded to take on whichever Democrat emerges from the crowded field, Murtaugh said.

On Monday, Trump and the affiliated committees raising money for his reelection bid said they had raised a record-breaking $108 million in the second quarter of 2019. The campaign’s previous record for a three-month period was $39 million.

Campaign officials said that funding allows the flexibility to invest in states such as Minnesota, where Trump lost by 1.5 percentage points in 2016.

“There is an honest view inside Trumpworld that had he done one or two more rallies in Minnesota, he could have won [the state],” one campaign adviser said.

Oregon, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, is considered more of a stretch, and some Trump allies described it as a misdirection play rather than a serious effort.

“Throw some stuff and money and give the Democrats some heartburn,” one adviser said, calling states such as Oregon a “head fake.”

America First, the pro-Trump super PAC, is seeking to defend states Trump won, Sadler said. It plans to raise $300 million for the effort and will focus on six states: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

It plans to begin polling next month in those six states, Sadler said, and the results could give the group a better sense of how to tailor its messaging.

Black voters, for example, could play a determinative role in 2020, after turnout in some key Midwestern cities fell in 2016 from Obama-era levels, hurting Clinton.

Trump and his campaign allies have been trying to improve the president’s standing among black voters, pointing to the criminal justice bill he signed last year and the growing economy. Boosting Trump’s numbers with black voters by just a few points could greatly affect Trump’s prospects, one campaign adviser said. The president and his allies have also been intensifying their attacks on potential rivals over criminal justice, hoping to turn black voters against some Democrats.

“Are we going to win African Americans? Probably not; they’re a historical Democratic vote bloc,” Sadler said in an interview last week. “It’s all about margins; it’s all about closing the margins.”

But the effort to win over some black voters will now compete with the backlash to the president’s comments about the four congresswomen, which have put him on the defensive and led him to tweet Tuesday morning: “Those tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”

The campaign is also attempting to improve its standing among Hispanic voters, and officials privately say this effort is more realistic than the attempt to sway black voters.

Murtaugh said Trump’s position on China and his support for border security are boosting his numbers among Hispanic voters. He said the president’s harsh rhetoric about undocumented immigrants is not offensive to legal immigrants.

Campaign officials say Trump is seeking to capitalize on growing Hispanic support to make a play for electoral votes in Nevada and New Mexico. The campaign is looking at venues in New Mexico to hold an event with Trump surrogates in September as part of its Hispanic outreach, one official said.

Democrats have highlighted the Trump administration’s harsh treatment of migrants at the southern border as the party has sought to make Hispanic voters a larger part of its diverse coalition. Several Democrats have criticized Trump for his plans to begin immigration raids in several cities this month.

The president’s low poll numbers among suburban women stand as a major impediment to his reelection chances, Wasserman said.

With that in mind, Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law, held an event in Pennsylvania to launch the “Women for Trump” coalition on Tuesday.

Trump’s role as president will prevent him from attending as many rallies in 2020 as he did in 2016, so these kinds of surrogate events will play a key role in the campaign’s strategy, one campaign official said. High-profile family members, such as Donald Trump Jr., and high-ranking officials, such as Pence, are likely to hold smaller events in lieu of presidential rallies, the official said.

Tuesday’s event was held in a location that will be pivotal to the 2020 race, Wasserman said, adding that the suburban area sits “in the heart of the territory Republicans lost in 2018” in a key swing state.

“King of Prussia is exactly the type of place that has moved away from the Republican Party,” he said. “By showing the flag there, the Trump campaign hopes that it can stop that slide.”