WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is moving quickly to install political operatives in more than a dozen states, targeting Maine and Minnesota among others that traditionally favor Democrats, as the Republican White House contender lays the groundwork for an expanded electoral battlefield.
The staffing expansion, outlined by campaign strategists not authorized to speak publicly about internal strategy, represents Trump's first tangible step toward implementing a general election plan that would defy conventional wisdom and political trends. Drawing on the New York billionaire's appeal among working class white voters in particular, the campaign is charting an early path to the White House that runs through states that haven't supported a Republican in a presidential election in decades.
"I will win states that no Republican would even run in," Trump told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
The Trump campaign has identified roughly 15 states where it plans to install state directors by the end of the month. They include traditional battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida and Virginia and more challenging terrain such as Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Maine — all states that haven't favored a Republican presidential contender in at least two decades. The target states are also expected to include Georgia, a Republican-leaning state where demographic shifts benefit Democrats.
The plan will be subsidized, at least in part, by the Republican Party's new "building fund," a lightly regulated pool of money that can draw donation of more than $100,000 from individual donors.
With likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton already weeks into her swing-state ramp up, Trump's team is scrambling to build a national organization essentially from scratch.
"Up until three weeks ago, there were 102 or 103 employees, which is fewer than Ben Carson had in January," said Trump aide Barry Bennett. "Today, that number is much bigger, and it's growing every day."
The former reality television star's success in the GOP primary season was fueled almost exclusively by personality and a flood of free media coverage. The staffing expansion marks the recognition that Trump must grow his bare-bones operation to be competitive this fall, even if he is reluctant to fully embrace other modern-day political tactics.
He refused to add a pollster for the first 11 months of his campaign, relying on sometimes-unreliable public polls to make strategic decisions. Now shifting toward the general election, Trump has hired GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, who confirmed the move Tuesday on Twitter.
With Fabrizio only now coming on board, Trump's strategists were forced to rely on the Republican National Committee's voter data and internal poling to guide the battleground state staffing plan. Going forward, Fabrizio will work with the Trump team and RNC on the voter modeling, overseeing the RNC's polling and voter targeting, according to a person familiar with the hiring.
The Trump campaign aims to have roughly 15 of its own state directors on the payroll by June 1 to supplement more than 200 RNC operatives already on the ground across the country. The campaign envisions a small, but significant presence in key states that includes a local state director, communications director, events coordinator and a coalitions director, with additional campaign functions running through the RNC.
There are challenges.
Trump begins the hiring process drawing from a pool of state-based loyalists who are largely inexperienced and relatively unknown to those leading his political operation. Some of the most experienced swing-state Republican operatives have so far shunned Trump's campaign. It's unclear how many may be willing to work for him now that he's become his party's presumptive presidential nominee.
To pay for much of the expansion, Trump's strategists said he expects to draw heavily from a new fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee, which is expected to be signed in the coming days. Clinton has a similar deal with the Democrats, which enables her to collect checks of more than $350,000 from individual donors and spread the money among her campaign and national and state parties.
But a key piece of Trump's pact, according to his strategists, will be the RNC's building fund. Congress opened up this new line of money for the parties in a larger spending bill at the end of 2014, and Trump is set to become the first presidential candidate to test its legal boundaries.
The building fund alone can receive donations of $100,000-plus per donor, making it a powerful part of the still-forming Trump fundraising plan. Though the Democratic National Committee has building fund of its own, Clinton did not include that in her joint fundraising agreement.
Trump's team concedes they weren't prepared to shift so suddenly toward the general election. Up until only two weeks ago, it appeared as though the GOP primary would continue until the party's July national convention.
"Nobody complaining that we're behind schedule," said Trump supporter, Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., noting that Democrats are still locked in a primary fight.
Collins expects Trump's message to resonate in states like his and "traditional rust belt areas" such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio that feature many working-class voters who don't typically support Republicans.
"Whether you call them Reagan Democrats, blue dog Democrats, whatever, that's what puts those area in play and why I think he's going to win in a landslide," Collins said.
Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz, Jill Colvin and Julie Pace contributed to this report.