Trump tries to upend the 2020 map

President Donald Trump is targeting a trio of states that he lost in 2016 — a move aimed at widening his path to reelection that comes as he’s struggling in the Rust Belt states that propelled him to the White House.

Trump officials are zeroing in on New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire, where they insist there’s an opening despite heavy losses Republicans suffered there in the midterms. They’ve deployed around a half-dozen staffers to New Hampshire and several to Nevada, an unusually early investment in places that favor Democrats. And the campaign is doing polling to tease out Trump’s level of support in New Mexico, a focal point for campaign manager Brad Parscale, and they have discussed dispatching aides to the blue state.

The maneuvering underscores how Trump is trying to capitalize on his vast financial and organizational advantage over Democrats. Yet it also illustrates how the president, whose own polling shows him falling behind in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, is seeking out additional routes to a second term.

In conversations on Air Force One and in the White House, Parscale has told Trump it’s imperative that he compete aggressively in states he lost in 2016.

“Every candidate for president needs multiple paths to 270 electoral votes. Last time, they had one path and it worked. But since no one can run the table every time, better to have multiple paths to 270,” said Republican strategist Karl Rove, who, as the architect of George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection, oversaw a successful effort to win several states Republicans lost four years earlier.

“Even in a reelection, you cannot count on repeating what you did before,” Rove added. “Sometimes, the nature of the opposing candidate changes the playing field, opening possibilities and closing others.”

Still, there’s considerable skepticism that Trump can make a serious play in the states — especially Nevada and New Mexico. Republicans have not won a presidential race in Nevada or New Mexico since 2004, and the last time they carried New Hampshire was in 2000. Democrats won every statewide race in New Mexico last year; in Nevada, they seized a Senate seat as well as the governorship. In New Hampshire, Democrats won control of both state legislative chambers.

Trump’s unpopularity was a big factor in that success, Democrats say.

“Last cycle, Democrats crushed Republicans in these states by highlighting President Trump’s toxic health care agenda and broken promises — that’s why he’ll lose them again in 2020,” said David Bergstein, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. “While we take nothing for granted, this GOP strategy looks like they are already concerned about a realistic pathway to 270 electoral votes.”

Trump aides acknowledge they start at a disadvantage in each of the three states, which total 15 electoral votes. (By comparison, Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, Michigan has 16 and Wisconsin 10.) But there are good reasons for the early investments, they say: Trump lost Nevada and New Hampshire narrowly in 2016, and all three states are small and relatively easy to organize in.

In Nevada and New Mexico, Trump officials say they’re buoyed by internal polling showing rising Latino support compared with 2016 — results they attributed to Hispanics who agree with the president’s crackdown on illegal immigration, among other factors.

“Hispanics are coming up saying, ‘I’m supporting the president.’ And that’s something I didn’t get three years ago. It was a pretty hard line in the sand,” said Steve Pearce, the New Mexico GOP chairman and a former congressman. “If he hits 35 percent, 38 percent, 40 percent of the Hispanic population, he’ll win New Mexico.”

Pearce recalled chatting with Trump about New Mexico during a holiday party at the White House last year and said it was apparent the president “well understood the value of our five [electoral] votes.”

The campaign’s interest in New Mexico partly stems from a February rally the president held just across the state line in El Paso, Texas. Aides discovered that about 70 percent of those who registered online to attend were Hispanic, and many came from nearby southern New Mexico.

Others in Trump’s political orbit are also paying attention to the state. Last week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the father of White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, penned a column in which he suggested that backlash to the policies of newly elected Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham could create an opening for Republicans.

“I feel sorry for the people of New Mexico, but I hope they’ve learned their lesson,” Huckabee wrote. “Maybe the next time they go to the polls, they won’t say, ‘Thank you, sir, may I have another?’ and fill in the ‘D’ circles again.”

Nevada Republicans, meanwhile, have been struck by the campaign’s decision to orchestrate an early field deployment. Additional staffers are expected to come aboard this month.

“It’s a winnable state, and they believe it’s winnable or they wouldn’t be on the ground. To my recollection, we’ve never started a presidential this far out,” said former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a Trump backer from a prominent Nevada political family. “They usually parachute in the election year, spring-ish,” added Laxalt, who, like Pearce, ran unsuccessfully for governor last year.

The Trump campaign’s optimism in New Hampshire is rooted in the belief that the party’s infrastructure will be fully behind the president. In 2016, Trump campaigned without the support of then-GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, while the state GOP chairwoman at the time, Jennifer Horn, criticized Trump for running a “shallow” campaign.

Since then, pro-Trump forces have mounted a takeover of the state party. Stephen Stepanek, a former state legislator and a longtime Trump supporter, took over as chairman earlier this year.

“We did not have a united party behind Donald Trump, our nominee, in ’16,” said Stepanek. “And that will not be the case in 2020.”

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Trump aides say they’re monitoring other states he lost in 2016, including Minnesota and Colorado. Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, has launched an aggressive effort to make inroads in Virginia, where statewide Democratic officeholders have suffered an array of scandals. Pence has visited Virginia a handful of times since late March, and on Thursday he is slated to appear at a D-Day memorial event in conservative Bedford County.

Trump campaign officials downplayed any concerns about the Rust Belt, saying the campaign is confident the president will prevail there again. But Scott Jennings, a former George W. Bush White House political aide, pointed to another incentive to compete in blue states: forcing Democrats to play defense.

“I think the Trump campaign is smart to try to open some new Electoral College avenues, even if you believe the probability of winning a map-stretcher is low,” Jennings said. “The race will be close and you need to work every possible angle.”