Trump mounts Rust Belt defense

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE is mounting a defense of Rust Belt states that delivered his 2016 victory and will serve as the key to his reelection bid next year.

The president will travel to Michigan next Thursday to stage his first campaign rally since a number of top Democratic contenders jumped into the presidential race, part of what is expected to be an effort to visit battleground states in the months before the general election campaign begins.

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Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid MORE by just over 10,000 votes in Michigan, becoming the first Republican to win it since 1988 and puncturing the so-called “blue wall” of states that voted for Democratic nominees in six straight elections, along with victories in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. 

But Michigan, like some other key states in the upper Midwest, trended towards Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections — a sign Trump’s path to another four years in the White House may be even narrower in 2020.

“There’s no question they are in a better position than they were in 2016,” said Brian Reisinger, a Wisconsin-based Republican operative, said of the Democrats. “It’s a sign that the Republican Party needs to be hitting on all cylinders.”

Trump’s campaign operation is mindful of the tough fight ahead and says it is prepared to do battle with Democrats, who are laser-focused on taking back their once-reliable territory in the Rust Belt.

“We are happy to go toe to toe with any Democrat 2020 contender, especially in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany. “Democrats simply cannot beat President Trump's record of achievement for men and women across this nation who have been neglected for decades and finally found their voice in President Trump.”

In addition to the Michigan visit, people close to Trump have been in regular touch with activists in Wisconsin to gauge which areas of the state need attention with an eye toward planning early presidential trips to the Badger State, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The talks have centered on how much time Trump should spend in the state and also campaign strategy.

Trump is also expected to make frequent appearances in battleground states in his official capacity throughout 2019, according to another person with knowledge of the president’s plans who requested anonymity to speak about internal discussions.

Future trips are expected to highlight agenda items, such as Trump’s revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, that could take him to manufacturing and agricultural destinations located in key states where Trump won over white working-class and rural voters in 2016. Travel to promote the tax-cut law is also in the works, according to the person.

Such stops could also include campaign rallies or political fundraisers, similar to how Trump stopped at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio before attending a fundraiser in Canton.

Past presidents have also planned official and political events during the same trip in an effort to make the most of the commander-in-chief’s time on the road, especially during election season.

But Trump has also not shied away from injecting political topics into his official speeches as well in an effort to appeal to fire up his supporters.

In remarks during his official speech in Ohio, Trump touted his economic record and took shots at his possible Democratic opponents, including Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKrystal Ball: Elites have chosen Warren as The One; Lauren Claffey: Is AOC wrong about the Electoral College? Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE (D-Mass.) whom he referred to by the derisive nickname “Pocahontas.”

“It's going to be really easy on the debate stage when they hit me with nonsense and I say, ‘Really? But African American unemployment — the best it's ever been.’ Hispanic, Asian, women, everybody — it’s all the best it’s ever been,” he said. “How do you top that in a debate?”

Both parties see signs of optimism, and reasons to worry, from the results of the 2018 midterms and recent polling, making the Rust Belt one of the most competitive areas of the country for 2020.

Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said party activists have ridden a wave of enthusiasm since the 2016 election, propelling Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowUSDA cuts payments promised to researchers as agency uproots to Kansas City USDA eases relocation timeline as researchers flee agency USDA office move may have broken law, watchdog says MORE to reelection and Gretchen Whitmer (D) to the governors’ mansion last year, and argued it would crest in 2020.

“As long as whoever we nominate recognizes the importance of connecting with Michigan and folks here in the Midwest, any of these candidates will be in a position to defeat Donald Trump,” Barnes said in a phone interview.

There are early signs of weakness for Trump in Michigan. Forty-nine percent of Michigan likely voters said they would definitely vote to replace Trump compared to 31 percent who said they would definitely vote to reelect him, according to an EPIC-MRA poll released earlier this month.

Two-thirds of self-identified Republicans said they would definitely cast their ballot for Trump, even though more than 80 percent approve of his job performance.

“I think he could have a tough time in Michigan,” said the poll’s founder, Bernie Porn.

Trump’s team is trying to counteract those trends by placing him in areas where he has not yet visited as president, which they believe will get his message into new media markets. Though Trump is making his third visit to Michigan since becoming president, it will be his first stop in Grand Rapids, a city located in the western part of the state where he underperformed in 2016.

The fight for Wisconsin could prove even more intense.

While Trump was the first GOP presidential nominee to win the state since 1984, political observers argued his victory obscured how competitive the state had already become. Three of the past five presidential races there have been decided by fewer than 23,000 votes.

Trump’s favorability ratings have generally stayed in the 40 percent range, according to recent polls, even as they have dipped below 40 in some polls nationally.

“I certainly would not think of Wisconsin as a Democratic stronghold at this point,” said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

Clinton faced pointed criticism for failing to visit Wisconsin after she received her party’s nomination, which Democrats sought to address by choosing Milwaukee as the host city for its 2020 convention.

Democrats have also been buoyed by Tony Evers’ defeat of Republican Scott Walker in the 2018 governor’s race and Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinRecessions happen when presidents overlook key problems Trade wars and the over-valued dollar Overnight Health Care: Senate panel advances drug pricing bill amid GOP blowback | House panel grills Juul executives | Trump gives boost to state drug import plans | Officials say new migrant kids' shelter to remain open but empty MORE’s (D-Wis.) reelection by a double-digit margin.

“Now that they have seen the cost of staying home: advantage, Democratic nominee,” said Joe Zepecki, a Democratic operative who worked on President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Wisconsin.

Republicans in Wisconsin argue that Trump’s chances of winning again will increase if Democrats nominate one of the candidates on the leftward end of the political spectrum.

“It depends entirely on who is opponent is. If we see a liberal, coastal elitist come through Wisconsin, the president is going to have a good contrast to draw,” said Reisinger. “They’re going to have a hard time winning Wisconsin.”

Democrats’ choice of nominee could also matter in Ohio, a traditional toss-up state that has recently tilted Republican in part thanks to Trump’s appeal to blue-collar voters who supported Democrat in the past.

GOP candidates won the gubernatorial and secretary of State races there last year, even as the so-called “blue wave” lifted Democratic candidates running for statewide office in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Ohio Democrats were encouraged by Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBank watchdogs approve rule to loosen ban on risky Wall Street trades Dayton mayor assigned extra security following verbal spat with Trump The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE’s reelection running on a populist message, but nationally, the liberal activists seem less enthusiastic about the party’s chances.

Ohio was not included on a list of key states targeted by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, which announced last week it is prepared to spend $50 million to weaken Trump’s support among white, working-class voters in 2020. The group is planning to launch ads in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as the possible addition of Florida.