Trump slow to invest in states that could decide election as some in GOP fear ‘skeleton’ campaign

NEW YORK (AP) — In his bid to retake the White House, few states hold as much promise for Donald Trump as Michigan.

The former president has already won the state once and President Joe Biden, who reclaimed it for Democrats in 2020, is confronting vulnerabilities there as he seeks reelection. Trump’s campaign promises an aggressive play for Michigan as part of a robust swing-state strategy.

But, at least for now, those promises appear to be mostly talk. The Trump campaign and its partners at the Republican National Committee haven’t yet made significant general election investments in the state, according to Michigan Republican Party Chairman Pete Hoekstra. The national committee, he said, hasn’t transferred any money to the state party to help bolster its operations heading into the general election. There are no specific programs in place to court voters of color. And there’s no general election field staff in place.

“We’ve got the skeleton right now,” Hoekstra said. “We’re going to have to put more meat on it.”

It’s much the same in presidential battleground states across the country, according to Republican operatives and party officials involved in campaign planning elsewhere.

Widely praised for its professionalism and effectiveness throughout the primary phase of the 2024 election, Trump’s political operation has been slow to pivot toward the general election in the weeks after executing a hostile takeover of the Republican Party’s national political machinery. In fact, the former president’s team has rolled back plans under previous leaders to add hundreds of staff and dozens of new minority-outreach centers in key states without offering a clear alternative.

Indeed, just six months before the first early votes are cast in the general election between Trump and Biden, Trump’s Republican Party has little general election infrastructure to speak of.

Officials on the ground in top swing states are not panicking, but the disparity with the Biden campaign is stark.

This month alone, Biden opened 100 new offices and added more than 350 new staffers in swing states from Arizona to Georgia to Pennsylvania, according to campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa. That’s in addition to the Democratic president’s existing battleground-state staff of 100 that was already in place.

Trump campaign senior adviser Chris LaCivita, who is now also running operations at the RNC, declined to detail any of the Republican campaign’s plans.

“By combining forces, the Trump campaign and the RNC are deploying operations fueled by passionate volunteers who care about saving America and firing Joe Biden,” he said. “We do not feel obligated, however, to discuss the specifics of our strategy, timing, or tactics with members of the news media.”

Trump may be discussing strategy with some state Republican officials behind closed doors.

Hoekstra was among a handful of Michigan Republican leaders who trekked to Florida last week to meet privately with Trump and members of his senior campaign team about plans for the general election. The conversation, Hoekstra said, left him optimistic about the former president’s commitment to his state.

“I feel good about where we are,” he said. “The Trump team is engaged.”

Earlier this month, Trump replaced Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel with his new hand-picked leadership team, including daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who is now RNC co-chair. LaCivita, who took over as the committee’s chief of staff, promised sweeping changes in the GOP’s political infrastructure across the country.

In the days since, more than 60 Republican staffers across the country were issued layoff notices. They included virtually all the people who staffed the RNC’s minority outreach community centers and others inside the committee’s department of State Parties Strategies.

“There was never a fully cohesive bond between the Trump campaign and the RNC in the past, and we are now operating as one entity,” Lara Trump said Tuesday on David Webb’s SiriusXM Patriot channel program. “We have cut a lot of fat.”

Facing internal pushback on some of the cuts, Lara Trump has vowed that the committee’s half-dozen existing community centers would remain open. But it’s unclear whether Trump’s team will follow through on McDaniel’s plans to open an additional 40 community centers in the coming months.

The centers were seen as a critical resource in boosting the Republican Party’s relationships with minority groups who have traditionally voted Democratic, but may be open to the GOP’s populist message. Advocates suggest that such investments have made a significant impact in recent years, especially in competitive House districts where several thousand votes can make a difference.

“It seems that there’s a consensus that community centers are vital for the Republican Party in general,” said Shawn Steel, a RNC member from California who credits a community center in Orange County’s Little Saigon with helping his wife, Rep. Michelle Steel, R-Calif., win her seat.

Democrats, Steel said, have been effectively engaging in minority communities since New York City’s Tammany Hall more than two centuries ago. “We’re trying to catch up,” Steel said. “I’m optimistic.”

Amid such optimism, however, there is also a deep sense of uncertainty as Trump’s team rewrites the party’s 2024 battleground-state strategy after burning the previous playbook.

Trump’s lieutenants have already postponed plans in place before McDaniel’s ouster that would have begun adding hundreds of Republican staffers in presidential battleground states beginning this month, according to people with direct knowledge of the plans who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.

It’s unclear if or when the field staff will eventually be in place. Recently laid-off staffers have recently begun interviewing for new positions, although some have been told they must relocate to Florida or new states.

Georgia GOP Chair Joshua McKoon said he has had several meetings with RNC leadership about “the deployment of additional resources” to his state, although there is no set timeline.

“What wins elections is having the staff necessary to carry out your get-out-the-vote plan, so that’s what I’m most interested in,” McKoon said. “I certainly expect to have further discussions in the very near future about the timeline and having some more specifics.”

He added, “I feel like we’re going to have what we need.”

Aware of a building sense of urgency, newly elected RNC Chair Michael Whatley issued a memo to party officials over the weekend promising that the committee is “building on our existing programs and expanding our outreach at the RNC.”

He vowed to “re-engage America’s working voters,” continue to engage rural voters, and grow Trump’s support “with demographics who have not traditionally voted for our candidates…”

Whatley did not offer any specifics, however, aside from mentioning a new battleground-state program that would direct officials within the committee’s State Parties Strategies department to work with “auxiliary Republican groups and other grassroots organizations” in addition to state parties.

Trump’s team did not clarify, when asked, which grassroots organizations Whatley meant, although the chairman before his recent election had aggressively courted leaders at Turning Point USA, a leading group in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement that had been a driving force in McDaniel’s ouster.

On Tuesday, Lara Trump wrote “Awesome!” in sharing a social media post from Turning Point founder and CEO Charlie Kirk that highlighted the group’s efforts to organize “full-time ballot chasers” in Arizona and other states.

Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign earlier in the month launched a $30 million six-week advertising blitz targeting swing-state voters with a particular focus on Black and Hispanic-owned outlets and “culture and sports programming such as Comedy Central and ESPN.”

Biden is also hitting the campaign trail with more intensity.

He has campaigned in Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Michigan in recent days. He was in North Carolina on Tuesday, signaling the president’s ambition in a state that Trump narrowly won in 2020.

Trump, by contrast, has been hardly seen in public this month aside from his court appearances.

Moussa, Biden’s spokesman, slapped Trump for embracing a general election strategy focused on “apparently hiding at his country club.”

“Meanwhile, the RNC fires staffers, shutters community centers and shuts down their minority outreach programs. Not exactly how to win the hearts and minds of the American people — or get to 270 electoral votes,” Moussa said.

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This story has been corrected to show the California congresswoman’s surname is Steel, not Steele.

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