The Democrats’ Dilemma: Expand the Battleground Map or Play It Safe?

June 26, 2020by Alex Roarty and David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Democratic presidential primary candidate Joe Biden speaks during a rally held at Gilley's on March 2, 2020 in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

WASHINGTON — A significant rise in support has suddenly made presumptive nominee Joe Biden competitive in a group of states that, until recently, were viewed as unwinnable for the Democrats.

But that doesn’t mean his campaign or other well-funded groups backing him are ready to start spending big money in these newly christened swing states — at least not yet.

Haunted by the memory of 2016, leading Democratic groups say they aren’t committed at this point to a major ad campaign in states like Ohio, Iowa and Georgia, worried that redirecting resources from the core group of six battleground states will repeat the mistakes of the last election and again give President Donald Trump a greater chance of an Electoral College win.

The temptation to potentially expand the presidential map and provide multiple paths to victory for Biden is a strategic dilemma that Democrats will likely be forced to grapple with over the summer, particularly if polls continue to show the former vice president running close to Trump in GOP-leaning states. Some leading Democratic officials and strategists are openly encouraging more spending in these emerging battlegrounds, convinced an influx of cash can at the very least siphon Trump’s resources from other must-win states.

But even if they don’t rule it out in the near future, Democrats say they aren’t quite there.

“Our spending is determined by the states most likely to represent the 270th electoral vote,” said Josh Schwerin, a senior strategist for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that has already spent tens of millions on the general election. “So the fact that Iowa, Ohio and Georgia are very much in play and winnable doesn’t necessarily change our spending plans. As of now, we’re planning to focus on these six and could expand, but our current priority is ensuring we get to 270.”

The Biden campaign announced its initial round of ad buys last week in the six states that thus far have received the vast bulk of the attention from both sides: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. Michael Gwin, spokesman for the campaign, pointed out that each is a state Trump won in 2016, meaning Biden is already expanding into states that went red four years ago.

The Trump campaign has targeted a slightly larger map, having run ads in Ohio, Iowa and Georgia in addition to the core six states since early May.

Any deviation from a focus on the main six battlegrounds would risk uproar from anxiety-ridden Democratic officials and donors, who still grouse about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 foray into Arizona and Texas before she had locked down traditionally Democratic states in the Midwest.

“People still have nightmares about 2016, and they don’t want to relive that,” said one Democratic official working on the effort to defeat Trump, granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategy. “And so anything that could be seen as straying from what we absolutely have to do to get to 270 electoral votes will rightfully be met with hesitance and caution.”

The official said any effort to expand into new states would be made by August at the earliest, when it would be clearer that Trump’s weakened political standing wasn’t just temporary, and would likely be mindful of places that also have a competitive Senate race, like Iowa or Georgia.

Democrats have reason to be wary of removing its focus from must-win states. In 2016, Hillary Clinton infamously avoided campaigning in person in Wisconsin and didn’t prioritize ad spending there in the final stretch of the race. And just weeks before the election Priorities USA — then serving as a pro-Clinton super PAC — ran ads attacking a House Republican in Iowa.

But in-state Democrats are more bullish about broadening the battleground map. Even in a place like Ohio, which Trump carried by 8 points in 2016, party officials are confident that Biden’s campaign is gradually preparing to treat the state as a target.

“I think they have a much better understanding of how you win Ohio than what the ultimate plan was in ’16,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper. “The communication with the Biden campaign in terms of a true back and forth is frankly much stronger than it was four years ago. They know what we’re doing. We are talking through what we’re doing as we do it. And they are very clearly putting together the final pieces on their broader swing state approach.”

The Trump campaign has already spent $1.1 million on ads in Ohio, a leading indication that they view the state as vulnerable. Democratic officials have also taken note of a recent polling analysis showing Ohio having the largest partisan shift toward the Democrats of any state but Colorado since 2016. But the only significant anti-Trump ad spending there has come from the Lincoln Project, which is led by “never Trumper” Republicans and has produced a series of provocative videos primarily designed to ridicule the president.

Whereas Clinton significantly outspent Trump on TV ads in Ohio only to suffer defeat, Republican Jim Renacci, a former Ohio congressman, warned that the president would need to leverage his resource advantage to keep the state in his column this year.

“I do think Ohio, although it still will lean somewhat Republican, it’s within the margin of error and he’s going to have to spend some time here,” Renacci said. “He will need to come back and make sure he reminds them all that was done in Ohio.”

Pepper, who argued that Biden was positioned to perform significantly better than Clinton did in outstate Ohio counties, said he expected more spending from Democratic groups in the months to come, especially if polls continue to show close to a dead heat.

“Priorities has spent two years telling everyone that Ohio was deeply red. They’ve obviously been proven wrong,” Pepper said. “We are right where we hoped to be. It’s a toss-up. We don’t need every group here.”

In Iowa, where Democrat Theresa Greenfield’s challenge to first-term Sen. Joni Ernst is quickly becoming a marquee battle, the Trump campaign has already invested half a million dollars on ads. The Biden campaign has been conducting interviews with operatives to lead its operation, with Jackie Norris, a former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, a top contender, according to a Democrat familiar with the talks.

National Democrats have kept their powder dry on ads so far in Iowa as local operatives ratchet up the pressure to invest. Trump carried the state by more than 9 points in 2016, but the most recent Des Moines Register survey showed his lead down to a single point. Private polling shows a similarly tight race: according to a GOP source, Biden trailed Trump by an identical one-point margin in the state in a poll conducted this month by a Republican group.

“The party cannot afford to ignore any state where Biden and the Democratic Senate candidate are both running even or ahead,” said Jerry Crawford, a longtime party fundraiser and Iowa lobbyist.

“If we are going to take back the Senate, it’s going to go through rural America,” added J.D. Scholten, a Democrat running to replace Rep. Steve King in the state’s most Republican district. “So why not lay the infrastructure there?”

In Georgia, GOP internal polls are showing a tight presidential contest, as well as surprisingly competitive U.S. Senate races. A Trump campaign digital ad blitz in mid-May that attacked Biden on Social Security and China reached some swing voters there, according to a Democratic tracking group. The Democrats’ record primary turnout there earlier this month has only fueled excitement around flipping the state into the blue column for the first time in 28 years.

If an expansion does come to a place like Georgia, it might be led by anti-Trump groups that aren’t affiliated with the Democrats. Tim Miller, who helped found the group Republican Voters Against Trump, said he is “intrigued” by the possibility of spending money in the new battlegrounds, though it is not yet committed to doing so.

“We are definitely having conversations about it,” Miller said, citing the Atlanta, Cincinnati and Columbus markets specifically as potential areas of expansion. Miller’s group, which has a budget of $10 million, is specifically targeting disaffected Republicans unhappy with the president.

Democrats also speculate that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg might still invest in an ad campaign against Trump. He had committed to doing so during the primary, but appeared to backtrack on the idea after his defunct presidential campaign contributed $18 million to the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats say they would be surprised if Bloomberg made an additional investment but also haven’t ruled out the possibility. A Bloomberg spokesperson said no decision has been made.

“As Mike has said, he supports Vice President Biden in defeating Donald Trump,” a Bloomberg spokesperson said in a statement. “We’re currently looking at how to best support Vice President Biden as well as Democratic victories up and down the ballot in November, just as Mike Bloomberg has done in previous cycles.”

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©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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