Bernie Sanders in Madison

Bernie Sanders, shown here at an April 12 rally in Madison, plans to spend a lot of time in Wisconsin and other battleground states as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination. In addition, he plans to keep challenging the lies that Trump tells about saving American manufacturing jobs.

Bernie Sanders is already running against Donald Trump.

Even as he competes with a crowded field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, the senator from Vermont is focusing considerable time and energy on upending the best-laid plans of the Republican he hopes to defeat in November of next year.

No matter who the Democrats nominate when they convene their national convention in Milwaukee during the week of July 13-16, 2020, the route to victory will be the same. It runs through the Great Lakes states that have long patterns of backing Democrats for president but failed to do so in 2016. The list includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Sanders has visited them all in recent weeks — along with Indiana, a state that backed Barack Obama in 2008 and that strategists believe could be competitive in 2020.

As Sanders said, "You've got to show up." That's especially true in Wisconsin, a state that went Democratic in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

In 2016, after the first campaign in decades when the party's nominee did not bother to visit the state during the fall campaign, Wisconsin's electoral votes went to the Republican. Trump barely won, finishing 22,748 votes ahead of Hillary Clinton in the Badger state; but with similarly narrow victories in Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Wisconsin result was enough to give the loser of the national popular vote an Electoral College "win."

So Sanders, who won a landslide victory in the 2016 Wisconsin Democratic primary, is showing up. On April 12, he spoke in Madison at an outdoor rally that, despite blustery weather that saw temperatures drop into the 30s, drew several thousand supporters.

The senator will keep coming back to Wisconsin and other fall battleground states. And he is doing something else that could turn out to be one of the savviest strategic moves of the 2020 election cycle. While other Democratic contenders are focusing messaging and campaign spending on key primary and caucus states, Sanders is turning energy and resources toward states where he will have to compete with Trump in the fall.

To this end, he has made Wisconsin a test case for a challenge to the lies Trump keeps telling about saving American manufacturing.

When Trump announced that he would hold a rally in Green Bay on Saturday, April 27, Sanders went to work. Green Bay is located near the Fox Valley, a historic manufacturing region of Wisconsin where many of the industries are now experiencing plant closings and job cuts.

"I will be going to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for a really big Rally on Saturday Evening," Trump announced on April 23. "Big crowd expected, much to talk about. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

Sanders immediately responded, "Trump promised to protect American jobs. He lied, and workers across Green Bay and the Fox Valley have lost their jobs. When we are in the White House, we will end the corporate greed behind the Shopko closures, Kimberly-Clark layoffs and Foxconn scam."

The senator was referencing job losses in the Green Bay area and the valley caused by the closures of Shopko stores and the closing and downsizing of Kimberly-Clark Corp. facilities. He also took a shot at the fiasco that has played out since Trump and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker promised the Taiwan-based technology firm Foxconn $3 billion in state subsidies (now closer to $4 billion) in return for a commitment to invest in Wisconsin and create 13,000 jobs. As the company sent mixed signals about actually following through on its commitments, Walker's already ailing 2018 re-election campaign stumbled and he was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers.

Two days later, Sanders was back on Twitter, declaring, "Donald Trump betrayed working people in Wisconsin. Our message to President Trump as he visits Green Bay: you're not going to get away with your lies any longer. We'll defeat you and protect American jobs."

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The senator's trolling of the president drew headlines in Wisconsin newspapers, along with radio and television coverage.

Then the Sanders campaign took things to the next level. On the eve of the president's visit to Green Bay, a banner ad on the top of the front page of the local daily newspaper amplified the Twitter message: "Donald Trump Lied To Wisconsin Workers. In a Bernie Sanders White House, we will end the corporate greed behind the Shopko closures, Kimberly-Clark layoffs and Foxconn scam."

On the day of the Trump event, Sanders backers rallied in Green Bay to challenge presidential claims that have never stood up to serious scrutiny.

What Sanders and his supporters are doing is sly. They won't neglect the primaries and caucuses that are essential to winning the nomination. But instead of focusing exclusively on the competition with Joe Biden and the other Democrats, they are messing with Trump with an eye toward exposing the president's lies and reframing the fight for the battleground states.

That's not all that will be required for the Democrats to win back states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — and perhaps Indiana and Ohio — in the fall of 2020. The party's nominee is still going to have to make a convincing case that she or he is prepared to respond to deindustrialization, automation and other challenges faced by factory workers, traditional industries and historic manufacturing communities.

But Sanders is making a smart start by refusing to surrender territory where Democrats once won presidential races — and where a fighting Democratic Party could win again.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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