Ohio is suddenly a 2020 battleground

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s campaign is spending money to defend Ohio, an unexpected development that underscores the president’s polling weakness amid the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest wracking the country.

Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016, and Democrats failed to flip any House seats there in 2018, which was an otherwise big year for Democrats nationwide.

Democrats had all but written off the state heading into the 2020 cycle, believing the rightward drift had taken the former presidential bellwether off the board as a battleground state.

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But a Fox News poll released this week found Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE leading Trump by 2 points in Ohio, one of several recent polls to find a close race there.

It’s part of the latest round of polls showing Trump trailing or running neck and neck with Biden in what was once believed to be safe GOP territory.

The Trump campaign is also spending money in Iowa, which Trump won by 9 points in 2016. Polls show a tight race in Arizona, Texas and Georgia, while recent surveys of Wisconsin show Biden opening up a healthy lead.

Republicans are not panicking, believing that Biden has been able to fly under the radar amid an unprecedented time of turbulence in the country.

“As of today, when the election and entire campaign is entirely a referendum on the president, it doesn’t look good for him anywhere, including states he won big in 2016 like Ohio,” said a Republican operative who has worked on campaigns in the state.

“But the factor that has not yet emerged is the choice between Trump and a Democrat, and I’m confident that once the choice presents itself in the fall, Ohio and other states where the president succeeded last time will turn around for his campaign,” they added. 

Trump got some positive news on Friday with a stronger-than-expected May jobs report, which came after a tough period dominated by news of the pandemic and the administration's response to the protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

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But Democrats are eyeing an expanded map with five months to go before Election Day.

The Trump campaign has spent more than $650,000 on advertising in Ohio over the past two weeks, according to data from Advertising Analytics.

Josh Schwerin, a strategist for the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, told The Hill that it does not intend to spend in Ohio this cycle but added, “That doesn't mean Democrats can’t win it.”

“It's an absolute must-win for Trump, and the fact that his campaign is already having to spend there shows that he is very much on defense and losing some of the financial advantage he's been counting on,” Schwerin said.

A Biden campaign spokesperson said the campaign is involved in "aggressive outreach to Ohioans."

“Donald Trump is dangerously unfit to lead our country through this moment and this poll underscores that the Buckeye State is paying attention," the spokesperson said. "Trump's lack of empathy for the civil unrest in our nation and his botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis that followed are at the beginning of a long list of broken promises to Ohioans, particularly communities of color and manufacturing communities from Dayton to the Mahoning Valley. A decade ago, Joe Biden helped lead this country through one economic recovery, and he is prepared to do so once again."

Ohio has nine counties that voted for Obama in 2012 and then flipped to Trump in 2016, making it the state with the seventh-most “pivot counties” in the country.

The Trump campaign has enough money to compete everywhere and said it is spending in Ohio only so it won't be caught off guard, as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Trump pledges to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, designate KKK a terrorist group in pitch to Black voters MORE was in 2016, when she dispatched operatives at the last minute to the former “blue wall” states that broke for Trump in shocking fashion on Election Day.

“President Trump will win Ohio, but we will not make Hillary Clinton’s 2016 mistake and take states for granted,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.

Some Democrats are encouraging the Biden campaign to invest in Ohio, saying the narrative that Ohio has moved too far away from Democrats has been overblown.

They note that the Obama-Biden ticket won the state in 2008 and 2012 and that Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownMnuchin says he and Pelosi have agreed to restart coronavirus stimulus talks Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle Remote work poses state tax challenges MORE (D) in 2018 triumphed by 7 points over former Rep. James Renacci (R), a multimillionaire who dug deep into his own pockets.

“Ohio is totally within reach,” said Aaron Pickrell, a Democratic strategist in Ohio. “Sherrod won by 7 points, and I think Biden fits that mold of candidate. People look at 2016 and they think that somehow Ohio became a totally red state ... but I think the Biden campaign should spend here. We’re surrounded by two other battlegrounds in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and the same messaging applies.”

But Republicans see Ohio as fool’s gold for Democrats.

Ohio is not a Senate or House battleground, so it’s not likely to draw much national money or attention.

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Republicans held all 12 of their House seats in Ohio in 2018, and Democrats held their four seats.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotKate Schroder in Ohio among Democratic challengers squelching GOP hopes for the House Centrist Democrats 'strongly considering' discharge petition on GOP PPP bill Lawmakers call for expanded AI role in education, business to remain competitive MORE’s (R) seat as competitive, with a rating of “leans Republican.” Nonetheless, Democrats have Rep. Michael Turner (R) on their target list, even though he won in 2018 by 14 points.

Some of the same forces that are working against Trump nationally are also visible in Ohio, including the president struggling mightily with suburban voters.

The Fox News poll found Biden leading Trump by 12 points in the suburbs.

But Republicans say that in Ohio, exurban voters who live in the areas that are a mix of rural and urban are more important, and they see these voters as outstripping Trump’s suburban weakness.

In addition, Trump and Biden are running even among women in the Fox News poll of Ohio. Polls in other states show the president suffering from a massive gender gap.

Trump’s base appears to be intact in Ohio — the Fox News poll found Trump with a nearly 30-point lead among rural voters and a 20-point lead among whites without a college degree.

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The president’s job approval is at 50 percent in Ohio, higher than it is nationally.

Republicans say the issue of trade resonates far greater in Ohio than in other parts of the country. They believe Trump has been an effective advocate for Ohioans on that front and that it will pay dividends on Election Day.

“Trump’s numbers in Ohio are behind where he was at this point in the 2016 race, but remember: The polling looked like a cardiograph up until Labor Day, then steadily moved in Trump’s favor in Ohio,” the Republican strategist said.

“He won Ohio by 8 points. Maybe he doesn’t match that, but I feel confident he’ll win. He’ll benefit from the success he had in the first term on the trade issue, and I think once the choice becomes clear between him and Biden, Ohio will be a state that falls into his column. Whether that extends into Pennsylvania and Michigan, I don’t know. Ohio is redder," they added.