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Trump hires GOP veterans to run campaign in Missouri

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump points to protesters that he tells to "get out," during his speech at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis on March 11, 2016.
File photo, Bill Greenblatt | UPI

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has tapped two veteran GOP operatives to head up his state operation.

Aaron Willard, who has held several key posts in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, is Trump’s new state director. Todd Abrajano, a consultant with similar GOP ties, is to serve as Trump’s communications director.

Said Willard in a statement: "Our campaign is focused on winning Missouri and is reaching out to Republicans, independents and disaffected Democrats to accomplish that goal. Missouri voters recognize that Hillary Clinton represents a third Obama term, while the Trump-Pence campaign of tougher law enforcement, stopping illegal immigration and bringing back jobs is resonating strongly across the state.”

The Trump campaign’s state headquarters will be in Jefferson City, in the same building that houses the state offices for the Missouri Republican Party.

A few hours later, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign announced that she will open an office in St. Louis. A kick-off event is slated for Tuesday, featuring St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

The Clinton office will be at 4039 Lindell Blvd.

"At the opening, Mayor Slay and supporters will discuss how a Donald Trump presidency would be terrible for Missouri’s economy and the Missouri small business community," the Clinton campaign said in a statement. "... Earlier this month, Hillary for Missouri announced new analysis that suggests Missouri could add 197,000 jobs under Hillary Clinton's economic plans, while it could lose 64,000 jobs under a Donald Trump presidency — a difference of 261,000 Missouri jobs."

Both announcements come as Republican and Democratic activists have been circulating polls that appear to show that Trump’s assumed edge among Missouri voters may be weakening, as Clinton’s standing has improved.

Since the GOP presidential convention in Cleveland in July, party leaders in Missourihave been upfront in their confidence that Trump would handily carry Missouri over Clinton in November and possibly have coattails that could help down-ballot Republican candidates as a result.

Missouri hasn’t been a presidential battleground state since 2008 and hasn’t favored a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996.

Hirings signal GOP concern

Dave Robertson, head of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, sees a mixed message in Trump's announcement.

"The good news for Republicans is that people with political experience in Missouri are finally on board to organize the state for Trump," Robertson said. "The not good news is that this is happening late in the election season, and it will be very challenging to for this team to make up for lost time.  The worse news is the context.  The presidential race in Missouri clearly has tightened. Trump seems to be ahead here, but Clinton is within a few points and could win Missouri.

"Clinton’s competitiveness is very surprising, given that Mitt Romney won Missouri easily in 2012 despite losing nationwide," Robertson added. "If Missouri is so close, statewide Republican candidates face an increasingly serious problem. The party has to act as soon as possible to battle back to win Missouri to help not just Trump, but the entire statewide Republican ticket."

So far, Hillary Clinton doesn’t appear to have set up a Democratic state operation in Missouri. But she does have a robust money-raising effort in the state, headed by veteran Democratic — and longtime Clinton supporter — Joyce Aboussie.

According to election projection models, Clinton does not need to carry Missouri to win the White House. Trump does.

Trump campaign stop on tap?

Clinton and her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, have made private stops in the state in recent weeks — she in St. Louis and he in Kansas City — for fundraising events.

But as it stands, neither Clinton nor Trump has conducted public events in Missouri since the state’s March 15 presidential primary. And neither campaign has been airing TV ads in the state, aside from any national ad buys.

It’s unclear if Trump’s hiring of Willard and Abrajano signals a change. There were rumors last week of a possible Trump rally in St. Charles soon, but GOP sources say that’s been postponed, for now.

But state Republican Party chairman John Hancock is confident Trump will not ignore Missouri: "I would expect that Donald Trump will be in the state sooner, rather than later."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.