President Donald Trump gestures after speaking at a campaign rally Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

A free pass for Trump? GOP presses edge in key battlegrounds

December 10, 2019 - 5:45 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — A full year before Election Day 2020, Republicans quietly executed a “dry run” of President Donald Trump's massive reelection machine.

They activated tens of thousands of volunteers and tested phone bank capabilities and get-out-the-vote operations in every state in the nation. Before and after the sprawling exercise, GOP officials coordinated thousands of so-called “MAGA Meet ups” to organize and expand their network of Trump loyalists, paying close attention to battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

And on Tuesday, Trump himself will face thousands more cheering supporters in Pennsylvania, his fourth appearance in the swing state this year.

The nation's best known Democrats, meanwhile, are pouring most of their time and resources into the states that matter most in their primary fight: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Three of the four will be considered swing states next November, but they are far from the biggest electoral prizes come Election Day 2020.

Defiant Democrats insist that Trump is not getting a free pass in the nation's top general election battlegrounds. They note that the “dry run” played out on the same week that Republicans suffered embarrassing losses across several states. But others are willing to acknowledge the reality: Much of the Democratic Party's energy and star power will ignore critical swing states like Pennsylvania for much of the next six months.

“Whomever their nominee is they’re going to come out broke and have to scale nationally overnight because the DNC lacks the resources to get it done,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the GOP and Trump's campaign, calling their operation in Pennsylvania the “biggest and baddest ground game in the state.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills noted that she's working closely with the Democratic National Committee to fund a large operation of their own, even if many Democrats are focused on primary elections hundreds of miles away.

“I don’t know exactly what the Republicans did, but we’re not threatened by it at this point," Patton Mills said. "We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure we don’t repeat what happened in 2016.”

Some Democrats are sounding the alarm.

They include Michael Bloomberg, the New York Democrat who entered the presidential contest less than three weeks ago. The billionaire former mayor is in the process of building a sprawling political operation of his own, which will focus simultaneously on more than two dozen primary states and general election swing states to help ensure Trump's operation doesn't go unanswered.

Whether he wins or loses his party's nomination, Bloomberg says he's devoted to spending more than $100 million to weaken Trump in swing states to help fill the void left by the Democrats' extended intraparty fight. The investment includes advertising and teams of paid operatives in Pennsylvania.

“Of course he has an advantage,” Bloomberg campaign adviser Brynne Craig said of Trump, noting that Democrats are months away from unifying behind a nominee of their own. “He’s already running. He’s doing the events he needs to. He’s able to talk to voters in the big states that will matter in 2020.”

At the same time, periodic Trump critics like Republican strategist Terry Sullivan, who has been studying public opinion in general election battlegrounds like Pennsylvania for years, says the president is doing better than his weak national favorable ratings might suggest.

“He's winning,” Sullivan said of Trump, pointing to national Democrats' focus on impeachment. “Before Democrats started on impeachment, he was actually his own worst enemy in a lot of these states. But this has actually helped him.”

The Democratic National Committee is working aggressively to limit Trump's advantage.

While Trump's GOP has more than $61 million in the bank compared to the DNC's $9 million, Democrats are waging a coordinated media campaign to speak out against the president ahead of high-profile visits, like Tuesday's. The committee is also funneling money to state parties to add communications staff and organizers in more than a half dozen swing states, including the big three states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which swung in Trump's column by razor-thin margins in 2016.

Specific to Pennsylvania, Democrats hired a rural director and an additional regional director, according to David Bergstein, the DNC's battleground state communications director.

In Wisconsin, Democrats knocked on over 50,000 doors this year, while Democratic organizers in Michigan are focused in suburban areas where Trump won in 2016.

Democrats are also getting a big boost from outside groups like Priorities USA, the super PAC that has outspent the Trump campaign in online advertising in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a combined $5.3 million to $1.3 million, according to a Priorities analysis of Facebook and Google spending since July 21. At the same time, the group NextGen America says it's registered more than 5,000 young voters this year in Pennsylvania alone.

With a handful of exceptions, however, the Democrats' biggest stars have been almost completely absent from the general election's most important swing states. And Trump will end the year with high-profile appearances in the big three.

Still, for all the concerns that Democrats are distracted by their primary fight, the party scored sweeping victories last month in several elections that were viewed as a sharp rebuke to Trump.

“At the end of their big 'dry run,' Republicans found themselves high and dry — lost statewide races in Louisiana and Kentucky, both legislative chambers in Virginia, and suburban battleground seats they'd controlled since the Civil War,” Bergstein said. “We look forward to replicating these kinds of results in 2020.”

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Peoples reported from New York. AP writers Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.

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