Phil Cox in POLITICO: The Blue State Trump Thinks He Can Flip in 2020

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Alex Isenstadt, POLITICO

March 29, 2019

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President Donald Trump is muscling into a blue state where Democrats are reeling: Virginia.

With a tenuous grip on states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the president is looking for opportunities to expand his electoral playing field. He’s set his sights on Virginia, a state Democrats have dominated in the past decade, but where the party’s three top officeholders are embroiled in scandals.

Leading the offensive is Vice President Mike Pence, who on Wednesday evening headlined a fundraiser in McLean for Republican state legislators up for election in November. Pence is expected to hold additional events for Virginia lawmakers in the coming months, and White House officials intend to use the 2019 elections to test whether they can make inroads in the state, which Trump lost by 5 percentage points.

Trump is keenly interested in the push. Before Pence departed for the fundraiser on Wednesday, the president asked him to deliver a message to state Republicans.

“Tell them we think Virginia is in play and that I’m going to be there,” Trump told the vice president, according to one person familiar with the exchange.

The president has repeatedly gone after Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam since revelations surfaced earlier this year that he wore blackface in the 1980s.

The White House offensive in Virginia highlights Trump’s central challenge in 2020. His popularity is underwater in many of the states that powered his upset victory in 2016. In response, Trump has started tearing down Democratic candidates, while searching for blue states that he might turn in his favor.

“Trump won narrowly in a number of states in 2016. He has to defend all those states and then find a few places where he can effectively go on offense. Virginia should be one of those states,” said Phil Cox, who managed the 2009 gubernatorial campaign of Bob McDonnell, the last statewide Republican officeholder in Virginia.

While Virginia is an early focus, campaign officials have discussed making a play in New Hampshire, Minnesota, Colorado and even New Mexico — a state that Trump lost by 8 percentage points. The conclusion by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that Trump’s campaign didn’t conspire with Russia in 2016 has his political team feeling upbeat and confident that a cloud hanging over the president’s bid for a second term has been lifted.

Trump’s pollsters recently launched surveys to gauge the president’s strength in more than a dozen states, including Virginia. The campaign has also tapped Jason Simmons, a veteran of Southern politics and a Trump 2016 alumnus, as a regional political director whose responsibilities will include helping to oversee the state. Field staffers are expected to be dispatched to Virginia in the coming months.

Within Democratic circles — and even some corners of the Trump campaign — there is deep skepticism the president can win the state, which has grown steadily more liberal in recent years. Republicans haven’t won a statewide contest in Virginia in a decade, and a Quinnipiac University poll released last month showed Trump with a 36 percent approval rating there. During the 2017 gubernatorial race, GOP nominee Ed Gillespie declined to campaign with Trump because he feared it would mobilize liberal voters in the state’s population-rich D.C. suburbs.

“The Trump campaign should definitely pull resources from Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to pour into the opportunity they see in Virginia,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked nearly a decade in Virginia politics, said sarcastically. “I strongly encourage them to do that.”

Democrats concede the firestorms surrounding Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and state Attorney General Mark Herring are damaging in the short term. But they say the scandals will have faded in the minds of voters by November 2020.

“On any given day, the Trump administration is engulfed in more scandals than any Democrats in Virginia will witness in their lifetime,” Ferguson said.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump 2020 spokesman, declined to discuss the campaign’s deliberations but acknowledged it is seeking out opportunities across the country.

“We plan to win where the president won before and expand the map even further,” he said. “There are a number of states where President Trump nearly won and we intend to focus a lot of attention there.”

Prior to the Wednesday fundraiser, Pence huddled with a small group of Republican state legislative leaders, including state House Speaker Kirk Cox. They discussed Virginia politics and the coming presidential contest.

“He said, and we agreed, that Virginia is in play in 2020,” said state Del. Tim Hugo, a Republican caucus chairman who attended the meeting.

Pence, Hugo said, made clear that he was committed to helping them in this year’s legislative races and that “he’d come back as much as we wanted.”

As the 2019 races get underway, Virginia Republicans are defending narrow majorities in both legislative chambers. National Republicans say they intend to use the contests as one measurement to gauge the president’s strength in the state, and that the outcome will help to shape the extent to which they invest there in 2020.

“The general assembly races in 2019 will be a good temperature check on base Democratic turnout. You could see these scandals act as a wet blanket on Democratic enthusiasm,” said Phil Cox. “There has been saturation coverage of the Democratic scandals in every corner of the Commonwealth, which could particularly dampen enthusiasm among African-American and female voters.”

Pence’s foray into the state bears some similarities to the steps Barack Obama took ahead of his 2012 reelection bid, when political organizers for the then-president helped Virginia Democrats with turnout efforts in targeted races.

Senior Republicans are intrigued by the prospect of playing in Virginia, though they acknowledge that Trump’s bombastic brand of populist politics doesn’t necessarily align with the state’s increasingly blue tilt. Bitter feelings still linger among Virginia Republicans after this winter’s prolonged government shutdown, which hurt the state’s large number of federal workers.

Virginia Republicans warned Pence that another government shutdown this year could doom their electoral prospects. The vice president acknowledged the concern, Hugo said, but the overall tenor of the meeting was optimistic.

“Virginia,” he said, “could very well end up in the Republican column in 2020.”