DES MOINES, Iowa — His campaign riled by infighting and Republican revolt, Donald Trump is working to address a battleground state staffing shortage that highlights his reliance on a skeptical GOP establishment.
The New York billionaire has slowly begun to add paid staff in a handful of swing states — Wisconsin and Iowa, among them — even as campaign officials concede the presumptive presidential nominee has little desire or capacity to construct the kind of massive national operation that has come to define modern-day White House campaigns. Trump plans instead to depend upon the national Republican Party to lead state-based efforts on his behalf, while Democrat Hillary Clinton has had an army of staff dedicated specifically to her campaign in general election battlegrounds for months.
“It would be disingenuous and wrongheaded to take a playbook that has been used over and over again,” said Trump senior aide Karen Giorno, in charge of an 11-state Southeastern bloc including battlegrounds Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. “We are creating the playbook.”
The unconventional approach reflects Trump’s disdain for traditional Republican campaign practices and inclination to implement businesslike decision-making. It also carries substantial risk.
If, for instance, Trump is lagging Clinton badly in polls come early fall, there is nothing to stop the RNC from cutting its losses and focusing instead on saving Republican control of the Senate or other competitive contests also on the ballot this November. Beth Myers, who managed 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, said White House candidates have unique needs that a broader-brush approach cannot always meet.
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“The presidential campaign is going to want to have someone on the ground whose interest is 100 percent Donald J. Trump,” said Myers, who is not involved in the 2016 Trump or RNC efforts. “Most campaigns by June would have that person in place in key states.”
Trump is largely outsourcing what’s typically called a campaign’s ground game, which includes the labor-intensive jobs of identifying and contacting potential supporters. Ed Brookover, recently tapped to serve as the Trump’s liaison to the RNC, says the campaign is making progress on adding its own staff in key states.
The campaign estimates it currently has about 30 paid staff on the ground across the country.
“There are some holes,” Brookover said. “There are fewer holes than there were.”
Specifically, Trump has added at least one paid staffer in both Wisconsin and Iowa in recent days, targeting two Midwestern states where he hopes to reverse Democrats’ winning streaks in the November general election. The campaign has also added for the first time a human resources professional to assist with hiring.
Trump’s plan to rely on his party’s establishment comes as party leaders lashed out at his message in recent days.
GOP leaders including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week condemned Trump’s renewed call, as part of his anti-terrorism strategy, to impose a temporary ban on foreign Muslims allowed to enter the country. Republican officials reacted with similar disdain after Trump insinuated President Barack Obama may sympathize with terrorists in the wake of the weekend Orlando massacre. Just a week earlier, some Republicans decried as racist Trump’s claim that a judge’s Hispanic heritage disqualified him from presiding over a court case involving Trump University.
Relationships remain strained within Trump’s campaign as well as rival factions jockey for influence.
The RNC in recent days hired Trump’s former political director, Rick Wiley, just weeks after he was fired by the campaign. The move took some of Trump’s senior team by surprise, despite the RNC’s assistance that it had the campaign’s blessing.
Committee Chairman Reince Priebus rejected reports of rising tensions between the RNC and Trump’s campaign.
“Flying to Dallas now with @realDonaldTrump...Reports of discord are pure fiction. Great events lined up all over Texas. Rs will win in Nov!” committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted this week.
Amid the uproar, Trump is forging ahead with his unconventional approach to building a presidential campaign.
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He has largely avoided campaigning in battleground states since clinching his party’s nomination, spending valuable time instead in reliably Republican states like Georgia and Texas, and reliably Democratic California. He has also been slow to embrace an aggressive plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fund both his campaign and the RNC’s ground game.
Trump has set his sights on carrying states in the upper Midwest, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, which have voted reliably Democratic in recent presidential elections, but are also home to white, working-class voters that have fueled his primary bid.
In many states, Trump has no paid senior general election staff in place. In a handful of others, he has no more than one.
At the same time, the RNC has 483 paid staffers in the field in states across the country “dedicated to beating Hillary Clinton,” said RNC spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. Florida has the most staff at almost 60. They’re also in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin.
They’re not necessarily wholly focused on Trump, however.
“We’re focused on Mr. Trump all the way down the ticket,” Walters said. “We’re working with all the different candidates running for election.”
By contrast, Clinton began placing state-level directors in April, and has such paid campaign staff in at least Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
For now, the Trump campaign’s goal is to figure out by the end of the month who is doing what where, Giorno said.
“We’ll be able to execute by July 1,” she said. “Mr. Trump insists on hard deadlines.”