GOP banks on tax cuts to keep ma­jor­ity in Congress

Repub­li­can ads tout over­haul as Dems counter

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Fre­dreka Schouten and Herb Jack­son

WASH­ING­TON – Re­pub­li­cans are pin­ning their midterm elec­tion hopes on the mas­sive tax over­haul signed into law last year, and it shows.

GOP groups and can­di­dates have run nearly 17,800 spots this year that tout tax re­form, ac­cord­ing to a USA TO­DAY anal­y­sis of tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing. The bar­rage has forced Democrats to re­tal­i­ate with com­mer­cials that slam the tax cuts as help­ing the wealthy — and en­dan­ger­ing Medi­care and So­cial Se­cu­rity in the years ahead.

Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity, a deep­pock­eted group aligned with con­ser­va­tive bil­lion­aire Charles Koch, is help­ing to drive the Repub­li­can spend­ing as it pum­mels vul­ner­a­ble Demo­cratic se­na­tors in states friendly to Pres­i­dent Trump.

The group bought more than a third of the tele­vi­sion spots men­tion­ing the tax over­haul passed by the Repub­li­can­con­trolled Congress in De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by Kan­tar Me-

dia’s Cam­paign Me­dia Anal­y­sis Group (CMAG), which tracks po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing.

The anal­y­sis also finds that over­all, ad­ver­tis­ing on the broader topic of taxes is soar­ing. On lo­cal broad­cast sta­tions, nearly 27,000 ads fo­cused on con­gres­sional races men­tioned taxes be­tween Jan. 1 and April 9. That ac­counts for 32% of all ad­ver­tis­ing tar­get­ing House and Sen­ate con­tests, up from 13% at the same point in 2016 and 16% in 2014, the most re­cent midterm elec­tions.

With tax re­turns for 2017, the last year for the old tax code, due on Tues­day, con­sul­tants and cam­paign of­fi­cials say the heav­i­est spend­ing on ads to high­light the new code is just start­ing.

“Ev­ery Repub­li­can mem­ber of Congress needs to run on the mid­dle-class tax cut and win on the mid­dle-class tax cut,” said Corry Bliss, who over­sees the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund, a su­per PAC aligned with House Re­pub­li­cans and its non­profit arm, the Amer­i­can Ac­tion Net­work.

The groups have spent $7 mil­lion pro­mot­ing the tax cuts since the start of the year and on Mon­day an­nounced an­other $1 mil­lion round of na­tional tele­vi­sion and dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing.

Some of the groups’ early com­mer­cials high­light a peren­nial GOP tar­get, House Demo­cratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who earned the Re­pub­li­cans’ anger for say­ing big com­pa­nies are us­ing the tax bill to give bonuses to top ex­ec­u­tives while leav­ing “crumbs” for work­ers.

“This elec­tion sets up a cen­tral con­trast: One party cut your taxes. The other party mocked you and your tax cut,” Bliss said. “If you are liv­ing pay­check to pay­check, and some­one gets you an ex­tra $2,000 next year, that’s a big deal.”

But the tax law, which made a 40% re­duc­tion in the top cor­po­rate tax rate per­ma­nent while set­ting a 2025 ex­pi­ra­tion date on cuts to in­di­vid­ual taxes and rates, af­fects tax­pay­ers dif­fer­ently based on where they live, the kind of work they do, how many chil­dren they have and what year the im­pact is be­ing mea­sured.

The non­par­ti­san Ur­ban In­sti­tute-Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion Tax Pol­icy Cen­ter said that while 80% of Amer­i­cans will see a tax cut this year, 53% will be pay­ing higher taxes in 2027, and that grows to nearly 70% for those mak­ing be­tween $54,700 and $93,200.

That pro­vides plenty of fod­der for the ad wars, and both sides have seized on it.

“It very much feels like Wash­ing­ton is look­ing out for the cor­po­ra­tions and the very wealthy,” says the nar­ra­tor of an Iowa ad funded by the lib­eral coali­tion Not One Penny, as view­ers see her chil­dren eat­ing break­fast and get­ting dressed for school. “The ma­jor­ity of us are go­ing to end up pay­ing more in taxes just to give tax breaks to peo­ple who al­ready have a lot of money.”

Not One Penny al­ready has run nearly 1,550 ads in Ari­zona, Iowa and Ne­vada aimed at vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can in­cum­bents, and spokesman Tim Hogan said the group plans to spend $5 mil­lion this year. Pelosi and Sen­ate Demo­cratic leader Chuck Schumer will head­line a rally Tues­day as­sail­ing the tax over­haul on Capi­tol Hill.

Re­pub­li­cans face stiff head­winds in this year’s elec­tions. Trump’s ap­proval rat­ings re­main be­low 50% in most re­cent polls, and a first-term pres­i­dent’s party typ­i­cally loses ground in Congress in midterm elec­tions. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., an­nounced his re­tire­ment Wed­nes­day, deal­ing an­other blow to Re­pub­li­cans’ fight to re­tain their 23-seat ma­jor­ity in the House.

The GOP sees taxes as “a lifeline in a very bleak po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment,” said Demo­cratic poll­ster Ge­off Garin. “The only virtue of this is­sue for Re­pub­li­cans is that ev­ery other is­sue is worse.”

Re­pub­li­cans’ prospects in the Sen­ate are far bet­ter. They are de­fend­ing just nine seats, while Democrats are de­fend­ing 26, in­clud­ing 10 in states where vot­ers backed Trump in 2016.

Early ad­ver­tis­ing on the tax bill by Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­ity has tar­geted In­di­ana, Mis­souri and North Dakota, where Demo­cratic Sens. Joe Don­nelly, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp are seek­ing re-elec­tion in states Trump cap­tured by large mar­gins.

The AFP ad­ver­tis­ing is part of a $20 mil­lion cam­paign by Koch-aligned groups to sell the tax over­haul to vot­ers. That’s prompted Demo­cratic groups, such as the Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC, to go on the air early to play de­fense.

The tax plan ap­pears to need some sell­ing.

Na­tional polls by Quin­nip­iac Uni­ver­sity show ap­proval of the tax plan grew from 26% to 39% be­tween mid-De­cem­ber and early Fe­bru­ary, then dropped to 36% in early March. Dis­ap­proval, 55% in mid-De­cem­ber, was 50% in early March.

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