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GOP campaigns ditch tax law and focus on immigration, crime ahead of midterm elections

FILE PHOTO: Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Kevin Brady (R-TX) holds up a sample tax form as he speaks during a media briefing after the House Republican conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 17, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Kevin Brady (R-TX) holds up a sample tax form as he speaks during a media briefing after the House Republican conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 17, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Republican campaigns have largely abandoned touting the GOP tax law ahead of the November midterms, with many pivoting instead to divisive issues such as crime and immigration in an effort to motivate conservative voters.

The decision to play down the top legislative achievement of President Trump and congressional Republicans comes as the law’s popularity has eroded and public sentiment has crystallized around the belief that it was primarily a boon for the rich. Democrats, in turn, have gone sharply on offense against the law in a number of races, instead of struggling to defend their “no” votes as Republicans had predicted would occur.

House GOP leaders, who continue to view the tax law as a positive, will hold a vote this week on a bill to make the law’s rate cuts permanent for individuals, not just for corporations as is currently the case. But even as they seek to refocus attention on the law, some are all but conceding that the messaging battle is already lost.

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“I think the misleading claims out there have taken hold,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “I do think just repeating the false narrative of ‘tax cuts for the wealthy’ is an easy narrative to sell, but it’s been fact-checked so often that it just simply isn’t true.”

Brady said that Republicans have worked to promote the law’s benefits to the public, but several GOP strategists, frustrated over the law’s poor standing and its absence from midterm campaigns, blamed Republicans themselves. They said Republicans have failed to build a sustained positive case for how the tax cuts help middle-class Americans and are missing an opportunity by retreating from a law they could tout as part of a larger economic success story at a time of low unemployment and stock market highs.

“Their messaging has been extremely poor,” said Steve Moore, who was one of Trump’s top economic advisers during the 2016 presidential campaign. “We’ve got the best economy in 25 years and they aren’t really talking about it. They are letting Democrats control the messaging.”

The tax law delivered a massive cut to the corporate tax rate. It also cut income taxes at all levels, changed the way taxpayers can lower their bills via deductions, and lowered an inheritance tax on wealthy estates. Multiple independent analyses show that while the vast majority of taxpayers would see a cut, the law’s benefits for individuals skew overwhelmingly toward the wealthy.

Instead of trying to reclaim the narrative on taxes, a number of Republican candidates and campaign operatives have made the calculation that shoring up support from their base by tying Democrats to crime or illegal immigration will be more effective than a positive campaign message about tax cuts and the economy.

The outside campaign committees and super PACs that make it their mission to attack opposition candidates have led the way on that strategy. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with the House GOP leadership, released a batch of television and digital ads in 15 congressional districts last week on topics including one Democrat’s arrest record, another’s “history with strip clubs,” and a third who is allegedly “liberal on crime.”

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that supports Senate Republicans, released attack ads against five Democrats on Tuesday, including one focused on MS-13 and another on guns.

In many cases, ads released by Republican candidates themselves focus on opponents rather than touting a member’s own accomplishments. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) accuses his challenger in one ad of wanting to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, whose mandate includes deporting undocumented immigrants. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) says her opponent sides with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in favor of illegal immigration. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) deems his opponent “too radical” and “too risky.”

When Republicans have touched on taxes in campaign ads, they’ve often focused less on their own work to pass the law than on accusing Democrats of wanting to raise taxes, an effort they often connect with Pelosi. The Wesleyan Media Project reported this week that “tax reform” featured in just 20 percent of GOP House ads; the issue of taxes more generally showed up in 49 percent of ads.

Some Republicans say the party has good reasons for focusing on issues such as crime and immigration.

“That’s what motivates the base, those issues that elected Trump, and this is a race that is all about enthusiasm and getting your base out. And Democrats are doing that, too,” said former Republican congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, who also is a former chairman of the House GOP campaign committee. “That’s basically what motivates the base — not economics.”

The tax law peaked in popularity in January, immediately after it went into effect, as a number of companies announced bonuses for their workers that were trumpeted by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Since then, though, some voters have said they’ve felt little personal benefit from the law.

In August, a Monmouth University poll found 37 percent of Americans approving and 45 percent disapproving of the law.

David Winston, a GOP pollster who advises congressional Republican leaders, said that Republicans have failed to explain to voters how the law helps them, including by doubling the standard deduction, increasing the child tax credit and lowering individual rates overall. When these provisions are described to voters in focus groups, participants are sometimes surprised to learn of them, Winston said.

“And that is completely on Republicans that that is the state of people’s knowledge,” Winston said. He added that “since people don’t understand what it is, they don’t understand what it means that Nancy Pelosi is going to take it away.”

Winston also questioned the strategy of appealing to the base in an election where independent voters could prove decisive. Those are the voters who could be reached by a positive message on taxes, he says.

Corry Bliss, head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, said in an interview that about half of GOP members running for reelection have done a good job selling the tax cut — but “the other half can do better.”

“The difference between those who win and lose the close races this year will be who gives their constituents a reason to be for them, and there’s no greater achievement than cutting middle-class taxes,” Bliss said. Despite the focus on other issues in some of its ads, CLF has spent more money on ads on taxes than on any other issue.

Some longtime party members say Trump’s lack of focus on the law has made it more difficult for candidates to center their messaging on it. Trump does occasionally tout the tax cuts, but he focuses more on border security, trade, his critics, the Russia investigation and a host of other issues.

“The fact that the president is not spending a lot of time talking about this issue but is talking about a whole set of other issues makes it harder,” said Rohit Kumar, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and leader of PwC’s Washington National Tax Services. “It’s hard for candidates of the president’s party to be driving a narrative that’s different than the narrative that the president himself is driving.”

There are examples of Republicans running positive ads on taxes. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Mike Kelly boasts in one ad of working to “reform our broken tax code.” In Virginia, Rep. Dave Brat says in one ad that he “fought for and delivered middle-class tax cuts.”

The economy has improved in the past 18 months, although Republicans and Democrats are split on why.

Republicans believe the accelerated economic growth is in part because of anticipation of last year’s tax cuts and the business-friendly environment Trump has tried to establish throughout the government, stalling or eliminating regulations in a way he has said will increase hiring.

Many Democrats believe the recent economic growth is a continuation of the recovery that began under President Barack Obama, combined with a surge in stock prices because of corporate tax cuts. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, has fallen only slightly since the tax law was passed, from 4.1 percent to 3.9 percent, although the rate was already low by historical standards.

One reason many voters haven’t warmed to the tax law is because many companies have not turned around and passed along the savings in the form of higher wages.

Instead, many firms have used their tax savings as a way to help themselves and their investors. Goldman Sachs reported this month that large U.S. companies bought back $384 billion of their own stock in the first half of this year, up 48 percent from 2017.