Joe Biden turns focus to Wisconsin with battle-tested hires

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FILE - In this June 17, 2020, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting with small business owners in Yeadon, Pa. Biden is turning to a quartet of experienced Wisconsin political operatives to lead his campaign in a state that helped deliver President Donald Trump his Electoral College majority four years ago. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is turning to a quartet of experienced Wisconsin political operatives to lead his campaign in a state that helped deliver President Donald Trump an Electoral College majority four years ago.

The former vice president’s campaign unveiled the team to The Associated Press on Wednesday, a day ahead of Trump's planned visit to the state. Wisconsin, where Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016, joins newly emerging battleground Arizona as the first two states where Biden has named his campaign team.

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Two veterans of Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s successful 2018 reelection campaign will run Biden’s Wisconsin operation. Danielle Melfi, who was Baldwin’s political engagement chief, is Biden’s new state director. Scott Spector, who managed Baldwin’s campaign, will serve Biden as senior adviser.

Garren Randolph will be Melfi’s deputy. He served as political director for Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ 2018 victory over then-incumbent Scott Walker, a Republican whom Democrats had tried twice before to knock out of office.

Shirley Ellis, a longtime adviser to U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, will join Biden team as a strategic adviser focused on Milwaukee. She currently runs Moore’s district staff and is helping plan the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. She will join Biden’s campaign formally after the August convention, according to the campaign.

Baldwin praised the team as “some of the best Democratic talent Wisconsin has to offer,” and she singled out Melfi and Spector for “unparalleled knowledge” of how to win in the closely divided state.

Democrats’ Wisconsin operation will be based in Milwaukee. Randolph and Ellis are Black and will play key roles in the city, where a large portion of the state’s Black population lives.

The latest announcements are part of the battleground rollout that campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon has promised for weeks. Top Biden advisers said they’ve intentionally recruited state leadership teams with previous relevant success.

In Arizona, Biden’s senior adviser Andrew Piatt managed freshman Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s campaign. Biden’s Arizona state director is Jessica Mejía, who’d previously run his primary campaign in California, where he finished a surprisingly strong second as part of his Super Tuesday surge that saw him win 10 out of 14 state primaries and take control of the Democratic nominating fight.

Together, the first two states disclosed reflect Biden’s dual approach to building an Electoral College majority – Wisconsin as one of the Upper Midwest states that slipped away from Democrats in 2016, Arizona as a rapidly shifting Sun Belt state that has been a GOP lock for decades. It’s part of what O’Malley Dillon touts as an “expanded map” with “multiple paths” to the required 270 electoral votes.

Yet O’Malley Dillon has had to reassure nervous Democrats who remember Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign devoting resources to states including Arizona and Georgia, only to fail there while also losing Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by fewer than 100,000 votes combined. Those three states handed Trump the White House despite Clinton’s national popular-vote advantage of nearly 3 million.

The Wisconsin team, especially, is intended to show that the Biden campaign’s talk of a wide map isn’t at the exclusion of traditional battlegrounds.

Recruiting from Baldwin’s team pulls in architects of Wisconsin Democrats’ most successful campaign in decades. Baldwin entered 2018 on every national list of vulnerable Democratic incumbents. She won by double digits, putting together Democrats’ ideal coalition in the state: strong minority and liberal turnout in the cities, expanded support in battleground suburbs where Trump has lost ground and limited GOP margins across the rest of the state.

Baldwin won about 90,000 more votes statewide than Clinton won two years before –- an impressive feat given that presidential elections typically have considerably higher turnout than midterm elections. Notably, Baldwin won several southwestern Wisconsin counties that Trump flipped in 2016 from President Barack Obama’s 2012 footprint.

Biden’s emphasis on Milwaukee, meanwhile, reflects O’Malley Dillon’s insistence that reclaiming Democrats’ Upper Midwest “Blue Wall” isn’t just about white voters in small towns. In 2016, Clinton won Milwaukee County by an even wider percentage margin than Obama managed in 2012. But her raw vote total in the state’s most Democrat-rich county fell about 39,000 votes shy of Obama’s — far exceeding her statewide deficit to Trump.

Both major parties have prioritized Wisconsin. A fundraising agreement between the DNC and the Biden campaign supports a field staffer dedicated to young voters, a digital director and communications aides, with the DNC separately supporting additional staff. DNC officials said the operation has knocked on at least 50,000 doors so far.

Trump's campaign said it has expanded its staff from 2016 and already has made 6 million voter contacts, meaning it has reached targeted voters multiple times. The campaign has hosted 750 “MAGA Meet-ups” drawing 9,000 supporters, along with 650 training sessions for about 3,200 volunteers. The president is scheduled to be in Green Bay on Thursday for a televised town hall hosted by Fox News personality and Trump ally Sean Hannity.


Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.” ___ This story has been corrected to show the Biden aide's surname is Randolph, not Rudolph.