WASHINGTON — With President Trump’s poll numbers sliding in traditional battlegrounds as well as conservative-leaning states, and money pouring into Democratic campaigns, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is facing rising pressure to expand his ambitions, compete aggressively in more states and press his party’s advantage down the ballot.
In a series of phone calls, Democratic lawmakers and party officials have lobbied Mr. Biden and his top aides to seize what they believe could be a singular opportunity not only to defeat Mr. Trump but to rout him and discredit what they believe is his dangerous style of racial demagogy.
This election, the officials argue, offers the provocative possibility of a new path to the presidency through fast-changing states like Georgia and Texas, and a chance to install a generation of lawmakers who can cement Democratic control of Congress and help redraw legislative maps following this year’s census.
Mr. Biden’s campaign, though, is so far hewing to a more conservative path. It is focused mostly on a handful of traditional battlegrounds, where it is only now scaling up and naming top aides despite having claimed the nomination in April.
At the moment, Mr. Biden is airing TV ads in just six states, all of which Mr. Trump won four years ago: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. The campaign included perennially close Florida only after some deliberations about whether it was worth the hefty price tag, and when Mr. Trump’s struggles with older populations made it clearly competitive, according to Democrats familiar with their discussions.
The campaign’s reluctance to pursue a more expansive strategy owes in part to the calendar: Mr. Biden’s aides want to see where the race stands closer to November before they broaden their focus and commit to multimillion-dollar investments, aware that no swing states, let alone Republican-leaning states, have actually been locked up.
Yet they are increasingly bumping up against a party emboldened by an extraordinary convergence of events. Mr. Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, his self-defeating rhetorical eruptions and the soaring liberal enthusiasm — reflected in the sprawling social justice protests and Democrats’ unprecedented Senate fund-raising — have many officeholders convinced they must act boldly.
Public and private polling shows Mr. Trump not only trailing badly in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, but running closely with Mr. Biden in traditionally conservative bastions like Kansas and Montana.
“Trump’s abominable presidency, especially in the context of the total failure to confront coronavirus, makes Texas very winnable,” said Representative Filemon Vela, an early Biden supporter. He said he is “getting bombarded” with pleas from Texas Democrats who are similarly convinced the state could turn blue with a substantial commitment.
Mr. Vela, who represents a long stretch of South Texas, said he had repeatedly made his case in recent weeks with Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. He argued that the former vice president’s strength with Black voters and suburbanites, and his ability to shave the party’s rural losses, gave him the party’s best chance in decades to claim the state’s 38 electoral votes.
Some Democrats remain chastened by 2016, when there were similar bursts of optimism, and believe this moment is so turbulent, and Mr. Trump so willing to break through political guardrails, that the party should not grow overconfident. The president retains strong support among Republican voters, and is hoping a backlash to the defacing of statues will allow him to successfully portray Democrats as radicals.
Texas is not the only traditionally conservative state agitating for attention from Mr. Biden’s campaign. Georgia Democrats are especially eager for him to compete in the state because it has two Senate seats up for grabs this year. More consequential, they argue, 2020 could kick-start a long-term realignment, allowing the party to build an enduring electoral advantage.
“The Sun Belt expansion is what will drive the next 30 years of elections,” said Stacey Abrams, the state’s former House Democratic leader, noting that Georgia has the most Black voters by percentage of any potential swing state.
The pressure on Mr. Biden, however, is not coming just from the South, where the virus’s resurgence has put Mr. Trump and Republican governors on the defensive.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio is pushing the former vice president’s aides to compete in his state, a longstanding political battleground that, after Mrs. Clinton’s dismal showing, many Democrats had concluded was out of reach.
“Ohio was a bellwether until 2016,” Mr. Brown said, arguing that Ohioans, unlike Sun Belt voters who’ve backed only Republicans, can be lured back because they’ve long voted for Democrats like Mr. Biden.
Mr. Biden’s advisers point out that he needs only 270 electoral votes to win and that remains their first objective. Their caution reflects the sobering possibility that, in the end, none of the conservative-leaning states will flip to Mr. Biden, and that his lead in Florida and the critical Midwestern states is tenuous.
“When you look under the hood, we are ahead in the majority of the battleground states, but we expect them to tighten because these are battleground states in a pretty polarized electorate,” Ms. O’Malley Dillon said in an interview.
In addition to the pressure to go on the offensive, she’s also being warned not to lose sight of potentially vulnerable blue states: Harry Reid, the former Senate Democratic Leader, is pushing Mr. Biden’s aides to keep a close watch on Nevada, a state Mrs. Clinton carried but where unemployment is soaring.
While Mr. Biden’s aides assess the landscape, though, Mr. Trump is signaling where he thinks the race is headed.
Last week, the president spent just over $150,000 on television ads in Michigan, where polls have him significantly trailing, while he poured over $1.3 million into commercials in Georgia and over $600,000 in Ohio, where surveys show a dead heat, according to the firm Advertising Analytics.
No state offers as big a temptation, and potential payoff, as Texas, with its increasingly Democratic, and diverse, urban centers. Beyond its importance in the presidential race, Texas provides House Democrats more pickup opportunities than any other state and the prospect of claiming a majority in the state House and on the state Supreme Court, both of which could prove pivotal for redistricting.
Recent Texas polls show a close race, with neither candidate leading by more than the margin of error.
Representative Joaquin Castro said Mr. Trump’s turn toward racial politics only made the state more alluring for Democrats.
“In Texas you have a very diverse group of voters who reject that kind of message and approach,” said Mr. Castro, predicting that Mr. Biden “could do better in Texas this time than some of the states that have been considered swing states for a generation.”
“Now is the best time we’ve had since Jimmy Carter to win Texas,” said Representative Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth-area Democrat, recalling the party’s 44-year drought.
This week Ms. O’Malley Dillon and other Biden aides spoke by telephone with Texas Democrats, including Mr. Vela, Mr. Veasey and the state party chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa.
The former vice president’s advisers were interested in Texas but “noncommittal,” Mr. Hinojosa said. “Their hesitation is that it’s so big and there is no history of this state ever being in play like it is now,” he said, conceding that the sheer girth and high costs of a state with 20 media markets makes it “a scary proposition” for a national campaign.
Mr. Vela said “the campaign is cautiously optimistic about Texas, but those of us on the ground are more optimistic than they are.”
This gap between the party’s energy and ambition, and Mr. Biden’s still-developing organization, is growing wider with every poll showing Mr. Trump slipping, and every new fund-raising report indicating Democrats are far outraising their Republican rivals.
While the campaign has made a flurry of hires in recent weeks, its pace of building out regional desks and state teams has prompted some private grumbling from party operatives. They worry the Biden camp isn’t yet positioned to capitalize on this year’s opportunities — or adequately prepared for the organizational demands of a massive vote-by-mail push made necessary by the pandemic.
Long-tenured Democrats, however, say there are more profound reasons to contest a broad array of states.
“An Electoral College landslide gives Biden the ability to move on major issues,” Mr. Brown said. “Second, it’ll give him a stronger majority in the Senate and give the party more state legislators.”
More broadly, Mr. Brown posited, a resounding repudiation of Mr. Trump would make it more likely that Republicans will discard his politics. “They’ve got to reject their plays to race if they’re going to be a national party that can compete in the future,” he said.
Paul Begala, the veteran Democratic strategist, was even blunter about the need for a convincing win.
“It used to be that anything past 270 electoral votes was useless because it doesn’t matter how far you run past the goal line in football,” said Mr. Begala. “But for the first time in American history there’s a legitimate concern that the incumbent president will not surrender power.”
Lawmakers in both parties are also increasingly focused on down-ballot races, and how much damage to Republicans Mr. Trump might leave in his wake.
Senate Democrats are hopeful that they can not only claim a majority but gain enough seats to survive a potential backlash in 2022, should a President Biden suffer the same losses most presidents do in their first midterm elections.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, expressed restrained optimism about Democrats’ prospects — he emphasized he was “not taking anything for granted” — but was confident Mr. Biden would work to deliver the Senate.
“Joe Biden has told me that his goal is to help us in the Senate in every way he can, even if it’s a state not on his target list,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview.
Mr. Schumer is especially intent on nudging Mr. Biden into Maine, Georgia and Iowa, where polls show Senator Joni Ernst, is narrowly trailing her Democratic opponent, according to Democrats familiar with his thinking, and has found the former vice president fully receptive.
Besides Arizona, where Democrats have made incursions in recent years, no state may be more ripe for the poaching than Georgia, which Mr. Trump is visiting next week.
Democrats lost there by eight percentage points in 2012, five percentage points in 2016 and then by only 1.4 in Ms. Abrams’s 2018 race for governor.
Jennifer Jordan, a state senator from Atlanta, noted that two potentially vulnerable Republican senators were up for election: David Perdue, and Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat last year.
“As the presidential goes I think that’s how the Senate seats are going to go,” she said. “So why wouldn’t you play — it’s a three-for-one.”