Voters being inundated with television and digital ads in the upcoming Ohio special election would be excused for not having a particularly favorable view of President Trump’s signature legislative achievement.
That’s because, of late, the sweeping tax reform package passed at the end of 2017 has gone largely unmentioned by Republican outside groups funneling money into the race to retain the seat vacated by Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH).
Two weeks out from an unexpectedly tight contest in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District—which President Trump won by 11 points—Republican outside groups have, instead, turned to topics like “open borders,” “amnesty for illegals,” and the composition of Democratic leadership.
One ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund PAC, which is closely allied with retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), seeks to tie Democratic candidate Danny O’Connor to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), saying that they want to open “America’s doors to more crime and drugs.” CLF has been the biggest outside spender in the race, with at least $1.9 million invested and previously ran an ad with a favorable testimony about the tax law that has since been phased out.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and O’Connor himself have done the opposite, zeroing in on the tax overhaul and deeming it a “corporate tax giveaway.” O’Connor began running an ad entitled “Deserve” on July 17. In it, he notes that to pay for the tax cut, Republican candidate Troy Balderson has said he would consider proposing hikes in the Social Security eligibility age. Just two days after that, the DCCC began running a similar ad saying Balderson supports a “massive corporate tax break.”
According to a Democratic strategist familiar with the ad buys, by July 30, the O’Connor campaign and the DCCC will have spent more going after Balderson on the tax bill than Republican groups have spent promoting it.
The ad spending patterns are the latest evidence that the tax bill has not been the electoral panacea that some Republicans predicted it would be—similar to how Democrats discovered no political salvation in Obamacare in the election cycles immediately after it was passed.
That dynamic was true in an earlier 2018 special election in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb won a narrow victory in a gerrymandered district that President Trump captured by nearly 20 points in 2016. There, CLF ran an ad highlighting Lamb’s opposition to the tax bill fairly early in the race. The group then dropped the topic, transitioning to a message about sanctuary cities and ties between Lamb and Pelosi. (Both Lamb and O’Connor have said they oppose Pelosi as a prospective Speaker of the House).
Lamb, meanwhile, ran his own ad saying that he supported middle class tax cuts but was opposed to any prospective cuts to Medicare and Social Security that could result from the Trump tax bill ballooning the deficit.
Even before the tax bill was passed, Priorities USA, the Democratic Party’s biggest Super PAC began running versions of a digital ad in 20 House districts urging constituents to call Republican members and ask them not to vote for the measure. Since then, the group has gotten more aggressive, particularly on Facebook, in a number of marquee Senate races.
Priorities is currently running ads saying that Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who is challenging endangered incumbent Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) “voted to up the deficit to fund handouts to donors” adding that he would “pay for it by cutting Medicare.”
Priorities also put out an ad defending Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) for not backing the tax legislation with the text “Permanent tax cuts for corporations while endangering Medicare? Joe says no.” Another ad targets Missouri Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley saying he “doesn’t care about your family” due to his support for the bill.
“The result of the tax bill has been record corporate tax cuts feeding massive stock buybacks for wealthy shareholders while wages drop across America, and a ballooning deficit that Republicans want to use as an excuse to cut Medicare and Social Security,” Josh Schwerin, communications director for Priorities said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “It’s no surprise that as the lies Republicans told about their bill have been revealed, we’ve seen their ad strategies shift toward Trump-inspired racism and fear mongering.”
A Republican operative working on the Ohio race told The Daily Beast that ad buys are being placed week by week and that taxes could resurface as a topic in the final weeks of the campaign. As for now, however, Balderson and allies seem more inclined to energize their own voters, with spots devoted to how some leading progressive Democrats have talked about abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency—a platform that O’Connor does not endorse.
“Show me a race where you’re not doing ads targeted at the base,” the operative observed.
Elsewhere, Republican candidates seem to be gravitating towards political messages that are devoid of talk of tax cuts and more designed to excite the base or stress biography. Hawley’s first TV ad was about the Supreme Court vacancy. Republican Indiana Senate candidate Mike Braun has focused his ads heavily on his own business. And Cramer released an ad highlighting President Trump’s criticism of Heitkamp at a recent rally, following one on tax cuts.
According to Facebook’s archive of political ads, America First Policies, a 501(c)(4) organization meant to boost the administration’s agenda, has been one of the more consistent Republican groups boosting the tax bill, running ads in conjunction with Vice President Mike Pence’s appearances across the country with Republican candidates. But that organization is largely alone on the Republican side of the ledger. Recent Facebook ads from the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee have posed questions to users including “Do you stand with President Trump when he says we must build the wall?” and “The liberal media won’t stop attacking President Trump, but where do you stand?” And the Republican National Committee has repeatedly used a video of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) telling constituents to publicly confront members of the Trump administration, to drum up support on Facebook.
Before Republicans can worry about November’s Senate races, they have to keep a watchful eye on Ohio’s upcoming special in a district that has been represented by a Republican since 1983. And some GOP officials still believe that running on the tax cuts will be enough to close it out in their favor… so long as they can make sure to remind voters about Pelosi too.
“The economy is roaring, people are receiving more money in their paychecks because of tax reform, and now Nancy Pelosi wants to undo the Republican tax plan if she gets control of the House,” Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said. “Democrats have opposed commonsense middle-class tax relief at every turn and each candidate the DCCC supports will aid Pelosi in her quest to enact a far-left agenda.”