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Trump camp descends on Pennsylvania as alarms grow over 2020

President Donald Trump addresses a rally April 29, 2017, in Harrisburg. He won Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point in 2016. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

2020 elections

The president’s team is set to meet with a state Republican Party riven by dissension.

04/24/2019 05:06 AM EDT

Senior Trump 2020 advisers are headed to Harrisburg on Wednesday to meet with Pennsylvania GOP officials amid mounting concerns about the president’s prospects in the critical battleground state.

Trump‘s campaign is moving to shore up the state after 2018 midterm elections that saw Republicans get blown out in races up and down the ballot. Compounding the situation is a state party organization riven by turmoil and infighting.

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The private meeting, confirmed by a half-dozen party officials, underscores the high stakes for the president in the state. Trump won Pennsylvania by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, and reelection aides view the state’s 20 electoral votes as crucial to his 2020 hopes. Pennsylvania also has symbolic significance: In 2016, Trump geared his campaign toward the state’s large proportion of blue-collar voters, many of whom had traditionally voted Democratic.

The Trump contingent is expected to include political director Chris Carr, who is orchestrating the campaign’s national field deployment, as well as Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who are overseeing outreach to delegates and state party organizations. Republican National Committee officials are also expected to attend.

The meeting is the first of what Trump aides say will be a series of visits to battleground states. The fact that Pennsylvania is the first stop underscores the state’s importance, they say — and the level of concern about it.

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“The party is not in great shape,” said Rob Gleason, a former Pennsylvania GOP chairman. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.”

The meeting is expected to focus on field deployment, voter data and coordination between state and national officials.

Among those expected to be on hand are Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val Digiorgio and RNC member Bob Asher. Ted Christian and David Urban, who helped spearhead Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state, are expected to join, as is former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, an ally of the president who waged an unsuccessful 2018 Senate bid.

Tim Murtaugh, a Trump 2020 spokesman, declined to comment on the meeting other than to express confidence in the president’s prospects in the state.

“The voters of the commonwealth were there for President Trump in 2016 and will be with him again in 2020,” he said.

The Trump campaign has been focused on Pennsylvania for months. In January, DiGiorgio traveled to Washington to privately huddle with reelection aides. The chairman presented a sweeping 2020 blueprint, detailing how he planned to recruit volunteers, target swing voters who bolted the party in 2018 and boost the state party’s lackluster fundraising.

DiGiorgio said in a text that the state party is working closely with Trump‘s campaign and that he’s confident the collaboration will produce “another victory” in Pennsylvania next year.

Wednesday’s meeting comes after months of bad news for the Pennsylvania GOP. In March 2018, Republicans lost a special election in a conservative southwestern Pennsylvania congressional district. In November, Republicans lost Senate and gubernatorial races by double digits as well as three House seats, partly because of a redrawn congressional map that favored Democrats.

Democrats also flipped 16 state legislative seats in the midterms.

The bleeding hasn’t stopped since then. In a special election this month, Democrats won a state Senate seat in a district that Trump carried in 2016. Nationally, it was the first such legislative seat that Democrats flipped this year, prompting grumbling among some Republicans that the state party did not invest enough in turning out voters.

A power struggle, meanwhile, has consumed state GOP leadership, with some Republicans complaining that DiGiorgio lacks fundraising skills and has failed to unite the party after a bruising election for state party chief in 2017.

There have been other black eyes. Last week, Fox News held a town hall with Democratic contender Bernie Sanders in Northampton, a traditionally Democratic county that Trump won in 2016. Prime-time viewers were treated to visuals of Sanders getting cheered in Trump country, leading some to wonder whether Republican organizers failed to lure fans of the president to the event.

Still, there are some indications the party has begun to stabilize. After rumors swirled for months that DiGiorgio critics might stage a vote of no confidence at the state party’s winter meeting, it never materialized.

Bruce Hottle, a state party committee member from western Pennsylvania, had called for state party leadership “to be looked at” before the event. Since then, he’s changed his tune.

“Leadership has taken a hard look at what worked and what didn’t work in the fall campaign and has made efforts to correct it so we don’t fall in that same trap again,” he said.

Others contend that the challenges the party faces in the state aren’t simply operational. A Franklin Marshall College Poll released last month said just 34 percent of the state’s registered voters approved of Trump’s job performance — a precarious standing for an incumbent.

To win Pennsylvania again in 2020, party officials say Trump will need to pull off a repeat of his 2016 performance by again carrying traditionally blue areas that had gone for Obama four years earlier.

Asher, a longtime GOP official and fundraiser, lavished praised on Trump‘s reelection campaign for “getting everybody together from all corners of the state and all parts of the party” for Wednesday’s meeting.

“I’m not going in with any preconceived notions,” he said.

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