President Donald Trump’s choice of 2018 campaign stops offers a partial road map to his 2020 reelection push.
Trump has hit key swing states he won in 2016, such as Florida and Wisconsin, while signaling the states that he hopes to flip in 2020, such as Nevada and Minnesota. Even in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina, where Trump can credibly claim to be campaigning for House candidates, he is also seizing on the ancillary benefits of stumping in states that will be vital to his reelection.
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His final push will bring him to at least 28 counties — all but 10 of which he won during the 2016 contest. The focus on deep-red regions of the map points to a reelection strategy aimed at running up the president’s rural votes to guard against losses in Democratic population-rich centers and places where his 2016 popularity may further diminish.
“Their focus is what they can do to help as many Republicans up and down the ballot as they can,” said Mark Harris, a Republican strategist from Pittsburgh. “There is certainly a benefit for him to be in these states — but it’s not the main purpose of this.”
The 2018 rally map is not a perfect reflection of 2020, though. Trump has yet to hit Michigan in the final weeks ahead of the midterms, which some presidential advisers have been urging him to do. And the president’s aides insist the best reelection strategy is still to do well in 2018. His rally appearances are meant to prioritize keeping a GOP Senate majority — and perhaps even pick up a few seats — and trying to hold onto a handful of close House seats amid polling that shows the Republicans could lose their lower chamber majority.
But even during a rare blue-state stop Saturday in Illinois, Trump didn’t venture north, dipping south through Murphysboro, where he could help boost Republicans in two House races.
And he’s making numerous stops in 2020 battleground states.
Trump has gone to Delaware County, Ohio, for a special House election; hit Lebanon, Ohio, for Rep. Steve Chabot; and plans to be in Cleveland on the eve of the midterms. Next week, Trump will twice be in Florida, where he’ll stump for Ron DeSantis in a hotly contested governor’s race and also lay the groundwork for the tough 2020 battle in the state. Having top allies in the state’s highest office, as well as in Georgia and Wisconsin, is viewed as a high priority inside the White House.
The rallies, too, have a distinct 2020 vibe to them, with Trump aides handing out signs featuring the early campaign slogan “Keep America Great” and attendees wearing much more “Trump 2020” gear than paraphernalia for the local candidate.
As one former White House official put it, “he’s going to states that are going to be critical and important in 2020, and they also happen to house the most critical and important races that he needs to keep the House majority — 2018 is the focus, but 2020 is the obvious overlay here.”
In several rallies in Minnesota, which Trump lost by just 1.5 percentage points, the president has stayed focused on the southern and northeastern regions, telegraphing to crowds there that he’s already competing for the state’s 10 electoral votes in 2020. Trump’s first visit of the 2018 general election was to Duluth, Minn., for GOP congressional candidate Pete Stauber, for whom he also cut his first robocall.
“I hate to bring this up, but we came this close to winning the state of Minnesota,” Trump said in Duluth in June. “And in 2½ years, it’s going to be really, really easy, I think.”
At an October rally in Rochester, Minn., Republican congressional candidate Jim Hagedorn welcomed the president by saying everyone in the room already “knows Minnesota loves President Trump.”
“But I will tell you,” Hagedorn added, “in 2020, when he comes back here and takes this state, the whole world’s going to know Minnesota loves President Trump.”
The Minnesota midterms — where all of the state’s Democratically held constitutional offices and both Senate seats are up — may provide telling signs of whether the state is really up for grabs in 2020.
If Democrats run the table, “Minnesotans will have rejected his visits and his policies,” said Mike Erlandson, a former chairman for the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “But,” he allowed, “Trump is not conventional about anything he does. If Republicans win one of the statewide offices, I wouldn’t count out Trump thinking it’s still winnable.”
Trump’s circle of close advisers points to the dozens of midterm races where they see the president, who is exceedingly popular with Republican voters, as a difference-maker. Nevada has a premier Senate contest between Republican Sen. Dean Heller and Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, plus a governor’s race and two competitive House races. There also are close House races in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and North Carolina.
White House aides and outside presidential advisers contend Trump has done everything he can to lift Republicans in the midterms, insisting that he’s pushed them to send him out to more events.
“The only thing he’s ever asked is, ‘Why can’t you have me do more?’” a top Trump official said.
While Trump’s midterm focus began months ago, the final campaign sprint of his 53-rally tour — spanning 23 states — is scheduled to include 30 post-Labor Day events. Nineteen rallies have been in tough Senate states and 11 have been for candidates in competitive House districts. Yet Trump’s overall presence on the trail is still viewed as a mixed bag.
“The president has done a lot of good things that have energized the Republican base as far as his accomplishments, his focus on regulations, the Supreme Court,” said Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential candidate.
But Trump “also seems to breed controversy,” he added, “and, for a variety of different reasons, he does tend to turn off some voters, particularly in areas that we’ve got a lot of vulnerable House members in. I think they are running against a particularly stiff headwind out there with the president’s — for lack of a better term — character-type issues.”
Wherever he goes, the Trump-centric nature of his rallies, which his reelection campaign plans and executes while collecting considerable data on the people who attend, demonstrate how far they are going to lay the groundwork for his reelection.
“A lot of these rallies very clearly have 2020, and not 2018, in mind,” a second former White House official told POLITICO. In Pennsylvania, where the Senate and gubernatorial races are seen as close to lost causes, they noted that Trump “has spent a great deal of time there.”
“Part of the thinking in the White House is states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio are going to be keys to Trump’s reelection in 2020, so it makes sense to start now.”
In particular, holding Pennsylvania is viewed as crucial to Trump’s reelection in 2020. The president feels personal loyalty to Rep. Lou Barletta, the long-shot Republican who backed him early in 2016 and is challenging Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. Trump’s recent stops in two Pennsylvania cities — Wilkes-Barre and Erie — were two of more than a half-dozen swings Trump has made through the state since taking office. It was the first state Trump visited on Air Force One.
A former Trump campaign official noted Trump has also dispatched surrogates to Pennsylvania. Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, headlined the recent Pennsylvania state Republican fall dinner, while Vice President Mike Pence and Eric Trump have stumped for House candidates in northeastern Pennsylvania.
These rallies have also fed Trump’s campaign team a trove of valuable information on supporters, in addition to serving as a fertile testing ground. The results fed an increasingly professional data operation just as the campaign is ramping up its resources.
“How do you perfect your branding? You try it out on people,” the former official said. “So, every time the president drops a new line (e.g. ‘jobs not mobs’), he’s essentially polling a focus group for their reaction and pocketing that for 2020.”
Ben Schreckinger contributed to this report.