Top-spending GOP group says little of Trump tax law in campaign

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A deep-pocketed Republican group that began the year vowing to focus on the tax overhaul has mentioned the GOP’s signature legislative achievement in just a fraction of its TV ads in 2018, a signal that the issue hasn’t been the political boon party leaders hoped it would be.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super-political action committee that’s the largest-spending political group this cycle, has put out 31,220 broadcast spots in the first nine months of 2018, just 17.3 percent of which referred to the tax law, according data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising.

The data underscore concerns among Republicans that the 2017 tax law — championed by President Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders — hasn’t gained traction with voters ahead of the Nov. 6 election that will determine control of the House and Senate. Instead, the GOP base has been more stirred up by issues like immigration and crime in the Trump era.

Earlier this year, the CLF’s mission was clear.

“The central question for November is: Does the middle think we cut their taxes? If the answer to that is yes, Republicans will keep the House,” Corry Bliss, the executive director of the super-PAC said in a March interview. A month earlier, in a New York Times article, Bliss told Republican candidates who want to keep their majorities in Congress to “shut up and stop talking” unless it’s about the tax cut.

‘The Hammer’

A CLF spokeswoman defended the group’s decision to highlight other issues and take out attack ads against Democrats, arguing that it frees up Republican candidates to promote achievements like the tax law.

“As the outside group, CLF is the hammer. And while we are acting as the hammer — running the tough ads and doing our jobs to define and attack these candidates — that gives an opening to Republicans running to tell their good news stories,” Courtney Alexander said. “And I don’t think there’s any accomplishment better to highlight than the tax cut.”

But an internal Republican National Committee poll concluded that their party has “lost the messaging battle” on the tax law because Americans believe by a 2-to-1 margin that it benefits the wealthy and large corporations over the middle class. Separately, a Fox News poll released Sept. 23 showed 36 percent of likely voters said they’ve seen more money in their paycheck “as a result of the 2017 tax reform law,” while 59 percent said they haven’t.

Rates Cut

The law permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent and lowered income taxes across the board for eight years, while expanding the standard deduction and limiting some expenditures. Most Americans will see after-tax benefits, with top earners enjoying the largest gains, tax specialists have said.

If Republicans aren’t campaigning on the tax cuts, Democrats are happy to. Representative Ben Ray Luján, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said at a Bloomberg breakfast earlier this month that the GOP’s “tax scam is under water,” including in the most competitive House races.

“There’s a reason why we are not seeing Republicans run on their record, not run on the tax plan,” said Luján of New Mexico.

House Battle

As the midterm election campaign enters the final stage, independent analysts uniformly agree Democrats are well-positioned to take control of the House. The GOP’s Senate prospects are stronger, even though its majority hangs on a two-vote margin. Democrats are defending 17 more Senate seats than the GOP, including 10 in states Trump won in 2016.

In the 2018 election cycle, CLF has spent more than $88 million to help Republicans keep the House majority — more than any group, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The proportion of ads sponsored by the group touting tax reform peaked in February at 72.8 percent, the CMAG data shows, as it spent heavily on a Pennsylvania special election narrowly won by Democrat Conor Lamb. The group backed GOP candidate Rick Saccone.

In August, when CLF ad spending surged in House districts across the country, 14.4 percent of its ads mentioned the tax law. In September, when its ad spending continued to rise, that figure was 16.8 percent.

Ad Uses

An example is a September ad in Maine’s 2nd district attacking Democrat Jared Golden. It features a woman who says "Golden opposes tax cuts that are saving Maine families" money. GOP Representative Bruce Poliquin voted for the 2017 law.

The share of CLF ads that mention taxes rises to 48 percent when factoring in vague references — usually to paint Democrats as tax-hikers or criticize an element of their record — that don’t allude to the 2017 law and can be an off-hand mention. For instance, one ad that focuses on attacking Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids on Medicare ends a 30-second script by saying her health-care proposals would "raise our taxes."

CMAG categorizes an ad as referencing the tax law if it mentions such things as the “GOP middle-class tax cut” or “voted for tax breaks that put $2,000 dollars in your pocket” or “opposed the tax break for middle-class families” or “fought against the GOP tax giveaway.” Just a mention of “lower your taxes” or “tax breaks” isn’t enough to trigger the tag.

The issue of immigration, which fueled Trump’s rise, was mentioned in 16.4 percent of CLF ads. Health care was cited in 29.4 percent of ads, as the GOP seeks to counter a Democratic assault on its proposals to weaken preexisting condition protections by highlighting some Democrats’ support for expanding Medicare to all Americans. Government spending was referenced in 38.5 percent of CLF ads, and terrorism was alluded to in 7.9 percent.

CLF has played up the culture wars in its ads, accusing numerous Democrats of supporting an “open borders” immigration policy — a staple of Trump’s stump speeches — and channeling fears among older white voters of demographic changes in the country.

The group has faced criticism over ads that distorted Democrats’ records, such as one implying that Virginia Democrat and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger sympathizes with terrorists because she taught English at a Muslim school that two terrorists attended after she left. Another CLF ad says Ohio Democrat Aftab Pureval worked for a firm that helped “Libyans reduce payments owed to families of Americans killed by Libyan terrorism.” He joined after the deal was reached and worked as an antitrust litigator.

Bloomberg News
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