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Super PAC Expands Midwestern Playing Field

If there’s anywhere the GOP’s fundraising advantage could pay dividends, it’s in the demographically vulnerable and undefended flank of Obama’s path to 270: the Upper Midwest. The Obama campaign isn’t airing ads in many traditionally competitive but Democratic-tilting states, like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, but the Romney campaign and their allies are getting more adventurous, and now appear poised to air advertisements in all three states.

Crossroads has already poured millions into Michigan—an ambitious target that Obama won by 17 percent in 2008, but filled with the white working class voters harboring reservations about Obama’s performance. After a spate of polls showed a surprisingly tight race in Michigan, it looked like the Crossroads effort might be paying dividends.

But the Crossroads effort was half-hearted—total investment in Michigan paled in comparison to the true battlegrounds, and when Crossroads went off the air for the last two weeks, other Republican groups didn't go on the airwaves to fill the void. Crossroads has just made another ad buy in the battleground states, including Michigan, but as of yet there isn’t much evidence that the super PAC, let alone Romney, is committed to an all-out pursuit of the state.

But the Upper Midwestern battlegrounds might be expanding. Over the last two weeks, the Romney-aligned Super PAC Americans for Prosperity began spending in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Unlike the restrained Crossroads buys in Michigan, investment in Wisconsin and Minnesota is commensurate with Americans for Prosperity’s spending in other battleground states.

Like Michigan, Obama depends on the support of white working voters, but Wisconsin and Minnesota are potentially more appealing than Michigan, albeit for different reasons. In Minnesota’s case, Obama’s relatively weak 2008 performance makes that state seem like a plausible target, despite its Democratic past. Wisconsin was the closest Kerry state in 2004, suggesting a large number of persuadable Bush-Obama voters who could be brought back into the Republican orbit. To the extent that the auto-bailout has bought Obama any goodwill in more industrial states, Romney might find Minnesota and Wisconsin more fertile.

There’s no guarantee that the Americans for Prosperity can move the needle enough for Romney to launch a full effort in either state.   These initial efforts by Romney-aligned super PAC’s are probably designed to test the waters and determine which states, if any, are worth a more concerted push. If the Romney campaign ultimately decides to more vigorously pursue any of these states, they will place the Obama campaign in a difficult spot: Continue to contest eight Bush states and Pennsylvania, or spread scarce dollars to additional states. Over the next few weeks, pay careful to the polls in these states for evidence that the GOP's efforts are paying off.