CLEVELAND/NEW YORK - Bracing for a general election fight with Donald Trump, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and her allies are putting resources into industrial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania to try to block Trump from making inroads with working-class voters there.
Labor leaders, progressive groups and Democratic operatives told Reuters in interviews that they took seriously Trump’s appeal with white working-class voters and were studying how to respond to his promises to create jobs and negotiate better trade deals.
The desire to stop the presumptive Republican presidential nominee from wresting away the support of unionized workers has even led a group organized to back Bernie Sanders, Labor for Bernie, to consider its next steps if Sanders does not win the Democratic nomination.
“It may well be our task to work hard to reach out to our (labor union) members who support Trump and begin an important dialogue,” said Rand Wilson, a staunch Sanders supporter and Labor for Bernie spokesman.
The Rust Belt, which includes Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and West Virginia, has suffered heavy job losses in sectors such as autos, coal and steel that have faced fierce competition from abroad.
The region, home to many unionized workers, has been a stronghold for Democrats. The exceptions are socially conservative West Virginia, which has gone Republican in the past four presidential elections, and Indiana, which has gone Democratic only twice since 1940. Ohio has switched back and forth.
Trump has aggressively courted working-class voters ahead of the Nov. 8 election to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. He has criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and promised to rip up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
He has also said he will consider raising the minimum wage and backing higher taxes on the wealthy.
On Monday, Trump sought to backtrack from those comments on taxes. “Now if I increase it on the wealthy, that means they’re still going to be paying less than they are paying now,” he told CNN. “I’m talking about increasing it from my (original) tax proposal.”
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Reuters the campaign was targeting industrial states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which have voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1992.
Working America, an advocacy group affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor federation, is expanding operations in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and plans to open an office in Wisconsin. Its first mission is talking to voters about jobs and the economy and trying to gauge where they are leaning in the presidential race. Later in the campaign, the group will work more aggressively to win over voters.
In Ohio, the Democratic Party has doubled its field operation over the past month, thanks to an infusion of cash raised by the Clinton campaign for the national and state parties.
Clinton, who has a strong lead over Sanders but has yet to secure the Democratic nomination, has already hired state directors in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Working America field director Soren Norris knocked on doors on the west side of Cleveland last week as part of an effort to gauge voter sentiment.
At the first house, Tamara Phillips, 44, told Norris she was not enthusiastic about either Clinton or Trump but that she would vote for the New York businessman if forced to choose.
Phillips, who works in publishing, said taxes on her commission income rose during former President Bill Clinton’s administration. But she said she had reservations about Trump’s “gruff” demeanor.
With an eye toward voters across the Rust Belt, Clinton visited Appalachia last week with stops in West Virginia and Ohio. She apologized for previous statements related to shutting down the coal industry and told protesters she was committed to solving their economic problems even if they did not support her.
Union activists said their strategy for undercutting Trump’s support would be pointing out discrepancies in his positions.
His comment that he is open to raising the minimum wage comes after he said in a November debate that “wages are too high” and that an increase would hurt the economy.
Although Trump rails against trade deals and businesses that move operations to Mexico, critics say that items such as ties and suits in his clothing line were made in China.
“The best way to go after Trump is to make him run against himself,” said political strategist Brad Bannon, who advises labor unions.
Tom Buffenbarger, a Clinton surrogate to labor and the past president of the machinists’ union, said Democrats would have “a lot of fun” highlighting Trump’s inconsistencies, although he acknowledged the Republican candidate presented a threat in some Rust Belt states.
“Are we concerned about the industrial states in the upcoming election?” Buffenbarger said. “Yeah, Donald Trump’s done a good job complaining about the trade deal while he continues to ship work from the U.S. to China.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis