White House Courting Key States Ahead of Election Season
The 2020 election may seem a long way off, but White House is getting a head start: It has been courting Republican Party chairmen from battleground states crucial to President Trump’s re-election chances, even hosting them in an Oval Office meeting with the commander-in-chief last month.
The courtship, which has also included weekly conference calls and access to staff and the Trump children for fundraisers, is being organized by the White House political office. The early outreach is seen as critical not just for the next presidential election but for the upcoming midterms.
Chairs from Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania met with Trump at the White House on May 18, RealClearPolitics confirmed with the state parties. Also there, according to attendees, were chairs from Florida, Nevada and Wisconsin along with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
Trump won seven of those states in November. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by less than a point, Nevada by two points and Colorado by three.
The meeting, which was scheduled for 15 minutes but lasted 45, was a chance for the president to ask his visitors about the situation in their states, participants said.
“It was a very relaxed, casual. Nothing formal,” said New Hampshire GOP Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester. “It was just like you were sitting down with an old friend.”
“The president wanted to know how he was doing in our states and we each gave him an update of how we thought he was doing,” said Pennsylvania GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio. “Pretty much across the board, if not entirely across the board, every state chairman said, ‘You’re doing well, the people who voted for you last year are still with you and keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Both the setting and the participants made clear what the endgame is.
“I will guarantee to you that this is going to be a tremendous help to Donald Trump when he runs again in 2020,” said Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “I can’t even imagine, if they’ve done this much in six months, the kind of networks and organization they’re going to have on the grassroots level, which is going to make, in my opinion, a primary laughable for anyone to consider. And it’s going to make these swing states … ready for battle [with] whoever the Democrats pick.”
And it comes as the White House confirmed the president will seek another term.
“Of course he’s running for re-election,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Wednesday before the president attended a fundraiser for the party and his campaign at the Trump International Hotel.
White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters confirmed the outreach, writing in an email: “We hosted a group and that we will be hosting more. We do provide outreach to state chairs/parties, and a diverse array of other constituency groups (ethnic, religious, professional, etc).”
The White House did not address RCP’s request for a list of meeting participants or other details.
While the chairs were effulgent in their praise of the White House political office, the outreach strategy they described -- weekly calls with their assigned contact in the political office (some states said they get almost daily attention), the meetings, and the back-and-forth conversations -- sounds like the brainchild of Priebus, the former chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party who ascended to chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“There’s a lot cohesion between the White House itself, the RNC, which I don’t work for, and the state party, which I do,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.
“We have somebody in the political affairs office we talk to, that routinely talks to us, that has conference calls, wants to know what is going on in the state and is very helpful when it comes to that.”
This is a strategy Priebus has employed before.
“He broke the mold on how we communicate with state parties,” said an RNC official who’s worked with Priebus and described his time at the committee as having a bottom-up approach when it came to state parties.
After the meeting with the president, the chairs had lunch with Trump’s chief of staff. And their conversation with him went deeper than the Oval Office discussion.
“That was an even more in-depth conversation of ‘what’s going on in your individual state, what are your challenges, how can we assist,’” Colorado GOP Chairman Jeff Hays said of the get-together.
Hays said that conversation was valuable. “He had been a state party chairman, RNC chairman – a great level of longitudinal experience and wisdom he was able to share with us,” he said of Priebus.
“Reince has a special place in his heart for chairs,” said Kaufmann, who led the state party during Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses last year.
Working on this project too is White House political director Bill Stepien, a former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie fired Stepien during the George Washington Bridge scandal. Stepien joined the Trump campaign and became national field director.
“Talked to him multiple times, had lunch had with him. Bill is very quickly becoming an expert on 50 states,” Kaufmann said.
The courtship has been ongoing since the start of the Trump administration.
“It was my third day in office when I got my first phone call from the White House. I would say I talk to them every other day,” said Forrester, who took over the New Hampshire party on Jan. 28. “They’ve been very responsive. I get a lot of daily updates via email [about] what’s happening and that lets me communicate with the grassroots in New Hampshire.”
She added: “They want to keep the momentum going. They don’t want to lose it. They understand the concept of stewardship of your base. You don’t come around when you need money or want a vote. You build relationships going forward and I think they understand that.”
More meetings are planned with state party chairs. Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck told RCP he will attend regional chairmen meeting next week at the White House.
“I’m shocked and couldn’t be happier with the level of interest that they have in the state parties and our organizations and asking how helpful they can be,” Whitbeck said as he repeatedly praised the administration’s support given ahead of the 2017 gubernatorial race in the Old Dominion.
The White House even hosted a “Virginia Day” on Thursday. State elected officials, activists, swing county chairmen, and key Republican leaders from across the state were invited to brief officials on the electoral situation, Whitbeck said.
“They want wins. They want Republicans to continue to hold the majorities in states and governorships. And every time we win these elections it obliterates the Democrats’ narrative,” he said.
And the political arena is one area where the Trump White House has been getting wins. Republicans held on to House seats in Montana, Kansas, South Carolina and Georgia special elections – a record the administration has touted.
The White House used some valuable assets to help achieve those victories, offering senior staff and the president’s children for fundraisers and campaign events. Donald Trump Jr. has been particularly active: He campaigned in Montana in April for Republican Greg Gianforte, who went on to win the House seat despite his election-eve attack on a reporter.
Trump Jr. was also in Dallas in March for a fundraiser with Sen. Ted Cruz for the Dallas County Republican Party and in Indiana in May for a state party fundraiser.
Phillip Huffines, the chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, said the fundraiser had over 1,000 people and garnered $500,000.
“I expect the Trumps to push back to take the urban areas from the Democrats, especially in the Republican-red states,” he said.
He noted Trump Jr. stayed to work the crowd and take photos. He also sat with Cruz that evening. “They were almost two peas in a pod,” Huffines said.
The younger Trump raised $400,000 for the Indiana GOP, according to state party chairman Kyle Hupfer.
“The biggest piece for us was that he was able to recount how Indiana had received him and his dad during the campaign. And he told stories about the folks who were involved in the campaign. He hunted in Indiana while he was here so he was able to talk a little bit about that. It felt he really had a lot of connectivity to Indiana from his time and that came through in his comments and his talk that night,” Hupfer said.
On the staff side, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has been a popular figure on the fundraising circuit. She was in New Hampshire for one on May 18 and is headed to Iowa in July for another.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer was at a fundraiser for the Virginia GOP on May 18.
And there will likely be more to come for the kids and the staff.
DiGiorgio, who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania before he took over the party leadership, is working with the White House to bring in Cabinet secretaries or family members to help with next year’s election, including for the Senate seat Republicans are looking to pick up.
The success of the political office is in sharp contrast to the legislative and communications offices, which feature daily battles with lawmakers and members of the media.
But the political job is also easier. The staff works with unelected party loyalists and activists as opposed to members of Congress worried about re-election.
And the state chairmen are pleased with that relationship.
“They have been very assertive reaching out to us and asking for our feedback and our help. And in the engagement. I’m not sure I can ask for much more,” Hays said.