Donald Trump’s shrinking electoral map

Donald Trump’s campaign once spoke of expanding his electoral map into blue-leaning territory like Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and New Hampshire.

Now, winning at least a handful of those states has become a matter of survival.

States that top campaign officials had said they had the luxury of pursuing are no longer considered add-ons to the president’s electoral vote tally but backstops to keep him afloat, according to multiple people close to or involved with his reelection operation.

The most telling sign of Trump’s defensive posture is his recent mammoth TV ad buys. The campaign is spending big to retain states he won in 2016 and to shore up support in places a Republican should already dominate in, like Georgia or Florida’s Panhandle.

Publicly, the Trump campaign asserts their candidate is still competitive in each of the 30 states he carried in 2016. They say presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden faces an enthusiasm deficit among his party’s likeliest voters and that public polling — much of which has shown the president trailing far behind Biden nationally, and more narrowly in battleground states — does not jibe with their own internal numbers.

“President Trump plans on winning every state that he did in 2016, plus picking up others. We’re in a great position to be on offense and would rather be in our shoes than in Joe Biden’s,” said senior adviser Jason Miller.

But privately, campaign aides, senior administration officials and GOP donors have begun to acknowledge what they call a more plausible scenario: a pair of losses in the Rust Belt, most likely Michigan and Wisconsin. That would mean the president has to win some proven Trump-averse states to crack the 270-vote threshold needed to clinch a second term.

Gone are the days of forecasting a landslide victory, said one person close to the Trump campaign. The president’s team is now recasting its expectations to identify not where Trump can win more, but how he can lose less.

“We don’t need 306. We just need 270. We can lose Michigan and lose Pennsylvania and still win,” said a top Trump adviser, noting that a win in New Hampshire, combined with one in Nevada or New Mexico, would provide enough Electoral College support to prevent defeat even if Biden wins big in the industrial Midwest.

That strategy accounts for a base of 260 electoral votes, a sum of every state Trump carried four years ago minus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which total a combined 46 Electoral College votes. To ensure its effectiveness, the campaign has recently moved to shore up its base states, including North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Iowa. The president’s standing among independents and seniors has eroded in those places amid his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, economic slowdown and unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd.

A fall advertisement blitz reserved by the Trump campaign last week reflected the campaign’s efforts to solidify states he carried four years ago. On Monday, the campaign dropped $95 million on broadcast TV ads that will air from early September until Election Day in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A second purchase set to bring the campaign’s total ad spending this week to $188 million is expected to include Michigan, New Mexico and Iowa.

Both Florida and Ohio, the latter of which Trump won handily in 2016, recently reentered swing state territory, a development that has troubled Trump allies who previously viewed them as easy wins. Trump’s ads in Georgia and Arizona — reliably red states in 2016 — indicate that his team sees Biden as a threat in the Sun Belt.

“We’re shoring up the base of our house to build to 270. We need to solidify them the best we can, with Florida being the linchpin of all of it,” said the top Trump adviser, who added that Iowa and Ohio are “closer than we want at this juncture.”

The campaign’s latest ad buy also included a nearly $10,000 investment in the Atlanta market. That worried one GOP operative who said the campaign’s ground operation in the state, which is run by the Trump Victory Team, “has been begging for direction from the campaign or Republican National Committee for several months to no avail.”

The last time Georgia broke for the Democratic presidential nominee was in 1976, but a recent poll by Fox News both showed Biden with a narrow lead.

Biden is spending far less on advertising. He is on air only in the six battlegrounds Trump won in 2016: Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona.

Biden leads Trump in all of those states, according to Real Clear Politics polling averages, which also show the Democrat ahead of Trump in the four states Trump campaign officials have eyed as potential pick-ups: New Mexico, New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has previously claimed the president’s policy agenda is capable of attracting Latino voters in states like New Mexico, which has voted blue in every presidential cycle since 1992 and currently boasts an all-Democratic congressional delegation.

“Let’s go straight into Albuquerque,” Parscale told Trump at one point last summer, as previously reported by POLITICO. The campaign eventually held a rally in the Albuquerque suburbs last September.

Now it’s Biden’s campaign that’s swaggering.

“We’re playing offense, buying programs like daytime Fox News and NASCAR to get in front of a large volume of Obama/Trump voters,” Biden’s campaign said in an internal memo obtained by POLITICO that outlines their ad buys.

Biden’s current five-week, $15 million TV buy is scheduled to be burned up by the end of next week, according to the Democrat’s campaign. So far, he has spent and reserved about half of that amount, according to the tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Biden’s campaign is zeroing in on the one swing state Trump can’t afford to lose: his newly adopted home state of Florida. The Trump campaign placed a massive $32 million fall ad buy this week. Other media buys by the Trump campaign have underscored Biden’s reason to go after Panhandle voters: the campaign last month spent $205,000 in the Pensacola television market, which shares viewers with Mobile, Ala. — conservative bastions where Republican campaigns seldom feel the need to get on air five months before Election Day.

“Right from the get-go we’re establishing a presence in the Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville markets,” the memo stated, promising a “strong presence in the Panhandle to get in front of white working-class voters who moved from Obama in ‘12 to Trump in ’16.”

In a sign of Trump’s Florida struggles, the president on Thursday brought back his former Florida campaign fixer Susie Wiles, who had been chased out by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for unknown reasons in September. At the time of her ouster, a top Trump advisor predicted to POLITICO she would return if Trump found himself in trouble.

With the November showdown between Trump and Biden still four months away, the president’s campaign maintains that voters — particularly in tougher Midwest battlegrounds — will break his way closer to the election.

“For us, Michigan was a late-term play last time,” said the person close to the Trump campaign, who was also involved in the president’s 2016 effort. “And I suspect that’s what will happen this time around.”

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‘How the hell are we going to do this?’ The panic over reopening schools

Pediatricians say schools should strive to bring kids back to classrooms. Teachers unions are on the verge of revolt, in fear of infections. Local school districts are struggling with everything from technology to staging schools for socially distanced learning.

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is largely on the sidelines, saying the coronavirus back-to-school planning is a state and local issue.

No wonder parents across America are freaking out.

The CDC issued additional guidance this week on safely reopening schools, with infections spiking in the South and West. Some education leaders fear the guidelines are being disregarded, casting doubt anew on how the new school year will even be able to launch. Yet the beginning of the school year is nearing and worried parents are wondering if they will be able to count on in-person classes resuming by the time they must return to work, inextricably tying school reopenings to the revival of the economy.

In Virginia, Fairfax County’s teachers unions say teachers aren’t comfortable returning to schools and are encouraging members to state their preference for online learning until more information about face-to-face instruction is available. In Texas, the governor is now requiring face masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more Covid-19 cases — but his order didn’t mention schools. Arizona has delayed schools’ reopening date until mid-August as cases surge.

From social distancing to health checks, the list of concerns is seemingly endless as school districts draft their plans, many of which are still in the development stages. Those concerns are only intensifying as Covid-19 cases begin to skyrocket.

“There are no plans for most of these places,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union. “People are panicked and parents should be panicked.”

Teachers increasingly are on edge and leaning on unions for help. “I’m being bombarded with, ‘How the hell are we going to do this?’” said Eskelsen García. “We’re worried that school districts will give in to a politician or some business that wants their workers freed up to come back and work in a factory somewhere, and that then they will be forced to open unsafe schools.”

Overall, a combined 54 percent of American voters said they are somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with reopening K-12 schools for the beginning of the coming school year, according to the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll that assessed the nation’s mood about students returning to day cares and schools shut down by the pandemic.

Some districts are offering either virtual learning or in-person learning that “almost totally” disregards CDC guidelines because social distancing won’t be possible and students might not be wearing masks, said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of a school superintendents association.

“A lot of states along the Southern belt are just planning to move ahead with, all students, all come, and to me, that is going to be a horror,” he said.

He pointed to the surge in cases after states have reopened for “business as usual.” “Except in the case of schools, it’s not going to be adults getting infected, it’s going to be children, and it’s going to be the adults that work with those children,” he said.

The patchwork of approaches across the country will leave many kids at a disadvantage.

Eskelsen García said there is “no national response to this, good or bad.” But she added that the infection rate data, needed for making decisions, will be different in localities across the country and DeVos’ help “never goes to a good place.”

DeVos’ lack of reopening guidance has prompted some congressional skepticism. A bipartisan pair of House members, Republican Van Taylor of Texas and Democrat Josh Harder of California urged DeVos last week to issue “guidance and training” to educators on how to reopen schools.

They haven’t heard back.

“We sent a bipartisan letter to her asking for guidance and we’ve gotten radio silence in response,” Harder said in a statement. “Teachers and parents need to know what the fall is going to look like and how we’re going to keep our kids safe. We need answers.”

But Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, said, “The most important federal guidance is what health authorities have to say, and other than that, I think the Department should simply be available to respond to questions, provide ideas or examples from what they are learning and seeing around the country, and distribute funds.”

DeVos spokesperson Angela Morabito said state and local authorities will “take the lead” on reopening guidance and the department continues to issue guidance and resources to help them “make the next best decisions.”

That may be just as well for public education leaders and advocates who have spent the last couple of months battling DeVos, a school choice advocate, over emergency relief for private school kids and teachers.

“Maybe not having guidance from them isn’t such a bad idea,” Domenech said.

A review of 100 districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that most are in the planning process, shooting for an early July release of their reopening plans. “How well districts set clear expectations, anticipate and solve problems, and strategically deploy resources will determine whether schools allow learning gaps between students to grow wider,” researchers wrote.

In Virginia, three unions representing Fairfax County Public Schools employees say they’re concerned about the public school system’s developing plans to restart classes for the coming year. The county’s model calls for either providing students 100 percent virtual, online learning or part-time, face to face instruction in school buildings.

“Our educators are overwhelmingly not comfortable returning to schools. They fear for their lives, the lives of their students and the lives of their families,” said Tina Williams, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, last week.

Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association, said the community “should not return to in-person learning until a vaccine or treatment is widely available for Covid-19.”

Ongoing outbreaks are already beginning to upend school reopening plans.

Arizona Gov. Greg Ducey used an executive order this week to bar schools from reopening for in-person classes until mid-August, though the state’s elementary and high schools can still reopen before then for distance learning.

The Texas State Teachers Association has said GOP Gov. Greg Abbott is in “too big of a hurry” to reopen schools and they’ve been calling on the state to mandate that everyone should wear a mask and be screened for Covid-19 symptoms on school campuses, among other things. On Thursday, Abbot issued an executive order requiring face masks in public spaces in counties with 20 or more Covid-19 cases, with few exceptions, according to his office. It’s unclear if schools will be included.

“We are 100-percent concerned everywhere,” said Eskelsen García. “There’s nowhere where people are just breathing a sigh of relief and this is all over.”

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Trump wants a park for statues of ‘American heroes.’ Just how might that work?

Near the end of Donald Trump’s polarizing, history-steeped speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday, the president announced he would sign an executive order establishing a “national garden of American heroes” where statues of “historically significant Americans” would be built or rebuilt.

In a moment of dueling national tensions over systemic racism and a deadly pandemic — and with a presidential election looming in November — Trump’s surprise executive order begs two questions: Will it actually ever happen? And if so, which American figures would then make the cut?

The executive order comes amid a national debate over the removal of Confederate monuments following civil unrest sparked by the death of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody. After protests across the country against police brutality and institutionalized racism saw the toppling of federal monuments become widespread, Trump last week ordered the Justice Department to prioritize prosecution of protesters who vandalize them.

“These statues are not ours alone, to be discarded at the whim of those inflamed by fashionable political passions; they belong to generations that have come before us and to generations yet unborn,” Trump’s executive order reads, an opinion he drove home repeatedly at his South Dakota rally and in the weeks preceding it.

The executive order to establish the park, which had not been announced beforehand, sets the stage for what could be a heated debate over which prominent American figures make it in. The order proposes statues of 28 Americans, among them John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman and George Washington.

The executive order also floats for inclusion Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, two Europeans immortalized in U.S. history for their roles in the colonization of North America but whose involvement in the deaths and enslavement of Native Americans has for years come under intense scrutiny. Protesters have toppled statues of both figures in recent weeks.

In response to the destruction of memorials nationwide, the president has called for a decade in prison for protesters who damage federal monuments, and has threatened to cut federal funding to cities who don’t protect statues. Those same prioritized prosecutorial actions would also be used to protect Trump’s statues garden, the president conspicuously states in his executive order.

In perhaps another wink to the president’s supporters — or “my people” as Trump refers to them — the order states of the figures to be included: “None will have lived perfect lives, but all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.”

Trump in recent weeks has stood firmly opposed to the removal of monuments to historical figures whose connections to slavery, colonialism or racist policies. Infamously, Trump blamed “both sides” for deadly violence perpetrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, following plans to remove a statue of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee from a park.

The president’s words sparked a nationwide outcry and rare criticism from within his own party.

Trump’s order may fuel further conflict in Congress, which would likely have to provide funding for any national monument garden.

“To the extent that Congress even wants to engage is likely to be extremely contentious,” said Carl Tobias, the Williams Professor of Law at the University of Richmond, who added that Trump will likely to need support from Congress to fund the monuments with an appropriations bill.

Congress has also recently seen its own debate over Confederate statues play out after Speaker Nancy Pelosi in June called for the removal of nearly a dozen such statues scattered throughout the Capitol building. A day later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the statue placements were up to the states, which each get two allocations.

Immediate congressional reaction to Trump’s executive order was muted.

On Wednesday, Trump dangled the possibility of a veto to any defense bill that scrubs the names of Confederate figures from military bases, tweeting that the names have become part of a “Great American Heritage.”

In his Mount Rushmore speech, he ripped the national conversations on revered American figures who owned slaves or advocated for racist policies as a “left-wing cultural revolution [that] is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

“The radical view of American history is a web of lies — all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition,” Trump said Friday.

The executive order establishes a task force for the project, which will be chaired by the Secretary of the Interior. If all goes according to Trump’s plan — and there are no guarantees it will — the garden will be open by July 4, 2026.

In the short term, it signals no end to a divisive, wedge issue the president believes he can use to his advantage as he heads into the final stretch of his re-election campaign behind in the polls.

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