The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Ohio, less GOP talk about tax cuts and more about ‘the resistance’

In the race for Ohio’s 12th congressional district, one party is on the airwaves talking about the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act more than the other: The Democratic Party.

Since July 16, shortly after the start of early voting for the Aug. 7 special election, a Republican ad about the tax cut has been taken off the air, replaced by one that makes only a glancing mention of it. The party’s ads are focusing more on Democratic nominee Danny O’Connor — his résumé, his political affiliations and his donations — as Democrats fold the tax cut into their own messaging.

In one ad, “Deserve,” O’Connor refers to the tax cut as “a corporate tax giveaway that adds $2 trillion in debt,” and cites comments by the Republican nominee, Troy Balderson, that endorsed raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare as a way to reduce the debt.

In another ad, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee uses B roll of Balderson at a corporate roundtable to make the same argument — by supporting new debt-financed tax cuts, Balderson will cut a path toward cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The messaging in the Ohio district, which backed President Trump by 11 points in 2016, echoes what Democrats used to close their campaign in Pennsylvania’s old 18th District in March. At that time, the controversial tax cut — which got no Democratic votes — was experiencing a surge in popularity, with polls suggesting around 43 percent of Americans had backed the law.

Today, the same polling average has support for the law at 36 percent — better in swing districts but no longer seen as an issue that moves the needle. In Ohio, the law appeared in just one ad for Balderson, a spot paid for by the Congressional Leadership Fund, which promised that he would protect “our middle-class tax cut,” while “Nancy Pelosi called our tax cut crumbs.” O’Connor, like many Democrats in swing seats this year, has said that he would oppose Pelosi for speaker of the House, but Republicans have used his support from the national Democratic Party to tie him to Pelosi.

That ad was cycled off the air a week ago; taking its place have been harsher, negative CLF ads that attempt to tie O’Connor to the left wing of his party. In “The Liberal Resistance,” the GOP super PAC warns that activists want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement — a position O’Connor does not hold — and suggests that “Warren and Pelosi know that O’Connor wants amnesty for illegals.”

The same day, another negative ad was cycled in — one that refers to the tax cut in the context of O’Connor’s opposition to it, and using that fact to say he would “vote with Pelosi to raise taxes.”

Corry Bliss, the executive director of the CLF, said in an interview last week that the tax cut was most powerful not as an issue on its own but as a way to contrast the agenda of a Republican Congress with that of a hypothetical Democratic Congress.

“It’s very helpful; it’s one of the central choices,” Bliss said. “One party [cuts] your taxes. The other party is saying, let me go [to Washington] to raise your taxes.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has upped its initial buy in the district to more than $500,000, has talked about the tax cuts as benefits that would be threatened if O’Connor won. In a spot that began airing on July 17, the committee uses O’Connor’s opposition to the initial tax bill to argue that he’d raise “middle class taxes.” (O’Connor has said he’d support just the “middle class” parts of the tax cut, while attacking the bill as a whole.)

But even as the economy has grown this year and as Republicans have held rallies and events to celebrate its benefits — from scattered worker bonuses to companies promising not to send jobs out of the country — the tax cut has not emerged as a galvanizing issue.

Nonetheless, Republicans are discussing ways to highlight the tax cuts and better sell them to voters, with the few weeks of legislative time left before the election. Unless Republicans add to their workload, they are expected to remain in session for 23 days — and Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has suggested they use some of that time for a “Phase 2” tax overhaul that puts Democrats on the spot.

“Not only do we lock it in, we lock it away from, frankly, Democrats who want to steal those tax cuts back,” said Brady last week.

Some Democrats are positive about the idea of a second tax cut push. It would likely be blocked in the Senate, where eight or nine Democrats — depending on whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is present for a vote — would need to be won over for the bill to get cloture. At the same time, it might be used by some swing district Democrats to vote for “middle class tax cuts” on their own, instead of as part of a larger package they attack on the trail.

That was the approach O’Connor usually took on the trail. In a debate with Balderson this month, he said he favored the tax cuts that the GOP’s bill had delivered for “the middle class” but opposed the massive cost of the corporate tax cuts.

“We put trillions of dollars on the national credit card without any way to pay for it,” O’Connor said.