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Go big or play it safe? Electoral map widens for Joe Biden and Democrats, but with risk

From the start of the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden’s simplest path to victory always ran though Big Ten country: Flip Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three Rust Belt states that Hillary Clinton narrowly lost in 2016.

Now, with Trump sliding in polls during a tumultuous year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, the electoral map has expanded for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Not only is the former vice president leading in all six states widely considered top battlegrounds, but poll shows him competitive in states that were once considered locks for Trump: Texas, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa and even Missouri.

It has the Trump campaign on defense, airing ads already in Georgia, Iowa and Ohio, all of which he won handily, and reserving $5 million in television airtime in both Ohio and Iowa, according to the campaign research firm Advertising Analytics.

Yet as more paths have opened for the Biden campaign to reach 270 in the electoral college – with Texas’ 38 electors a chance to upend both the race and reshape presidential politics for years to come – it comes with risk. Playing offense by pumping money into these states would come at the expense of resources elsewhere, namely Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Clinton’s margins of defeat were each less than 1 percentage point.

For the Biden campaign, it’s an electoral dilemma.

Democrats crave a knock-out punch – a victory that delivers a clear statement against the Trump era, turns red states blue, makes it harder for Trump to dispute the results, hands Democrats redistricting powers in state legislatures and gives them control of the U.S. Senate, where they need to pick up three or four seats to take over.

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Some party loyalists argue Biden could help that cause by expanding into Georgia, Iowa and Texas, which each have competitive Senate races featuring Republican incumbents. The same dynamics are true in North Carolina and Arizona, where Biden is already investing.

“I think the lesson from 2016 is to make absolutely sure you’ve locked down the electoral college states that get to the magic number before you even think about it,” veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said.

It’s not only a matter financial resources resources, he said, but the time required of candidates and surrogates. A substantial financial play in Texas, for example, could put Trump on his heels in a Republican stronghold, but at what costs elsewhere?

“This is where you’re the one that falls into the trap: You’re throwing 50 million bucks at Texas because you think, ‘Wow, we’ll make (Trump) spend $80 million here,’ but that’s $50 million it turns out you’d rather have spent in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania,” Trippi said. “The most important thing is the electoral college discipline. That’s what we lacked I think in 2016.”

‘That’s not cautious. It’s smart.’
Biden’s strong polling, ahead by double digits nationally in some surveys, comes as Trump has lost footing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, economic struggles and racial unrest nationally.

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The New York Times reported Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who is among the contenders to be Biden’s running mate, is pushing the Biden campaign to invest in her state, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is leading the pitch for the Buckeye State. The Times reported Democratic leaders in reliably Republican Texas urged Biden campaign manager Jen Dillon O’Malley to make Texas a priority during a phone conference last week.

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Making its first television advertising push in Texas, the Biden campaign Tuesday released a 60-second spot aimed at the state’s spike in coronavirus cases. “This virus is tough, but Texas is tougher,” Biden says in the ad that concludes: “Stay safe wear a mask.” The Biden campaign said it paid “mid six figures” to run the ads, a relatively small amount, suggesting the Biden campaign is still testing the waters in the Lone Star State.

“They’re very surprised at what they’re seeing coming out of Texas,” Texas Democatic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told USA TODAY, recounting the conversation with the campaign. “They expected Biden to be competitive in Texas. They did not expect that consistently the polls would show him either tied or ahead of Trump.”

A Dallas Morning News poll released Sunday found Biden ahead of Trump 46%-41%

Hinojosa said he understands the reluctance to invest in Texas because of its enormous size and lack of recent Democratic success in presidential races. The last Democrat to win Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. But besides polling, he pointed to other dynamics he said show Texas Democrats are ready to deliver high – seven congressional races in Republican-leaning districts where Democrats are competitive and Democrats in need of only nine seats to take control of the state House.

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