Trump Owns the Booming Economy. Republicans on the Trail Barely Mention It.
Posted July 29, 2018 4:43 p.m. EDT
NEWARK, Ohio — His Republican opponent doesn’t say much publicly about the Trump tax cuts, but on a warm night in a small-town union hall an hour outside Columbus, Danny O’Connor was happy to talk about them — a lot.
“We just saw, this last December, a $2 trillion swipe of the national credit card, a giveaway to big corporations,” O’Connor, the Democrat in a special election on Aug. 7 for an open congressional seat here, told the crowd, drawing nods. “That doesn’t do anything for us. It doesn’t do anything for working people.”
That seems to go against what Republicans intended. Party leaders in Washington talk frequently about the tax cuts and a “Trump boom” that will doom the “blue wave” this election year — or at least shrink it to a ripple. News Friday that the economy grew at a robust 4.1 percent between April and June seemingly supplied more ammunition to a message centered on tax cut-fueled prosperity.
But so far, that is not how it is playing out on the campaign trail.
With little more than a week to go before voters here head to the polls, the airwaves are instead dominated by more general promises to create jobs and, from Republicans, by dark warnings on wedge issues such as immigration, meant to rally the conservative base. A Republican super PAC is blitzing the Ohio airwaves, contending that electing O’Connor will mean “more crimes, more drugs.”
“Danny O’Connor would join the resistance,” the Congressional Leadership Fund ad concludes, with the Democrat flanked by three women: Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
A Wesleyan Media Project analysis of national advertising data from Kantar Media/CMAG also shows Republicans are rarely bragging to voters about the economy’s strength.
Republicans have reason to doubt the efficacy of an economic message in hotly contested midterm campaigns, which have historically been referendums on the sitting president. The last time the economy grew 4 percent in a quarter was in the middle of 2014, under President Barack Obama, just before Senate Democrats lost nine seats — and their majority — that fall.
For their part, Democrats are weaponizing the tax law — which is mired in only middling popularity — against Republican opponents in some key races. Their critiques have been fed by government statistics showing wages for typical U.S. workers have not risen over the past year, after adjusting for inflation, even though Republicans promised the tax cuts would unleash rapid wage growth.
That’s true in Ohio’s 12th District, which stretches from mostly affluent suburbs of Columbus where residents probably benefited a good deal from the tax cuts to the foothills of the Appalachians, where they haven’t. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first ad in this special election opened with a hit on the Republican, Troy Balderson, for supporting “a massive corporate tax break that helps rack up $2 trillion in debt.”
O’Connor and his allies have now spent more money attacking the tax cuts than Balderson and Republican groups have spent extolling them, even though the Democrat is being outspent overall, 2-1.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has run ads criticizing O’Connor on taxes and playing up the strength of the economy. But on the Columbus airwaves, those messages have largely given way to more inflammatory issues.
Balderson’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on tax policy and his advertising decisions. But other Republicans say the messaging strategy reflects a judgment over how best to motivate their core supporters to vote in the Aug. 7 election to replace Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi, a Republican who helped author the House version of the tax bill and who retired this year to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable.
The district has been held by Republicans for nearly four decades. Until this year, it was considered solidly red, thanks in part to a redrawing of its boundaries by Republicans in 2012, which pushed thousands of Democratic voters into another district. Balderson, a state senator, won a crowded primary this spring with Tiberi’s support. Tiberi said in an interview that the timing of the special election — in the depths of summer, as many families vacation and prepare for the start of a new school year — was forcing Balderson to focus on issues that can best grab Republican voters’ attention. Regardless of the outcome next month, the two candidates will face off again in November.
“This right now, for the Balderson campaign, is about turning out Republicans — if Republicans vote, Troy wins,” Tiberi said. “In the fall, I think you’ll see more issues, and more economic issues.”
Many Republicans said last year, as the tax cuts were speeding through Congress, that the new law would excite their base and help preserve their congressional majorities in the midterms. The law permanently reduced the corporate tax rate to 21 percent, from a high of 35 percent. It doubled the standard deduction for individuals and cut individual tax rates, although those provisions expire at the end of 2025. Party leaders predicted that as Americans began to see the law’s benefits, its popularity would rise.
Instead, polls suggest support for the law peaked shortly after it was passed, and has declined slightly since. A July online poll of 9,767 people by the research firm SurveyMonkey, conducted for The New York Times, found that views on the law were essentially split, with 48 percent in favor and 47 percent against. Opposition was higher among college-educated voters, which could support O’Connor’s argument in the 12th District, which features the most educated electorate in Ohio.
Attendees at O’Connor’s union hall fundraiser Wednesday here in Licking County expressed concern over the tax law, especially on fiscal grounds.
“We can’t afford it,” Ann Petrushka, a teacher in Licking County, said. “I’m not sure we can recover from it.”
In an interview over half a turkey sandwich and a Bud Light, O’Connor said he would vote to keep the law’s middle-class tax cuts, but he repeatedly called it unaffordable for working-class voters and raised the possibility that it could lead to safety-net cuts and the raising of the retirement age. O’Connor’s “$2 trillion” price tag for the bill rounds up an estimate of $1.9 trillion from the Congressional Budget Office, which does not account for additional economic growth produced by the tax cuts.
O’Connor said that many of the voters he talks to feel as if they are still not getting ahead, even with low unemployment and accelerating economic growth, and that even affluent voters in his district see the law as unfair.
“Income inequality is high, wage growth is low,” he said. “Folks doing well still want to have an economy that works for the middle class.”
As they turn to November, Democratic candidates across the country are echoing that message. They are working critiques of the tax bill into a broader argument about stagnating real wages and rising health care costs, to portray Republican rule under Trump as primarily benefiting the wealthy and leaving U.S. workers to pick up the tab.
“Democrats are right to press this,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for American Bridge, a liberal opposition research group that is helping Democrats in the midterms. “Republicans ran on populism in 2016, and their policies delivered the opposite.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, running for re-election against Rep. James B. Renacci in a state that Trump won handily, said Republicans “should be ashamed of their tax bill, and I think they are.” In an interview, Brown said he would be willing to devote an entire debate with Renacci just to the tax law: “I think this is a fundamental difference between the two parties.” Republican officials said the strong growth report Friday could soften candidates’ reluctance to dwell on economic themes, though they also said that Republicans would continue to attack Democrats on other issues, especially their ties to the House Democratic leader, Pelosi, who is unpopular with conservatives.
Trump said Friday that he would stump for Republicans in tough races nearly every day for the last two months of the campaign, arguing that the strength of the economy would help lift his party’s fortunes.
“It’s a positive, unifying message for Republicans around the country” to talk about tax cuts and growth, said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We’re not shying away from it, but I wouldn’t expect to see it in every ad.”
So far, voters have seen it in hardly any. The tax law “takes a back seat” in campaign advertising, said Erika Franklin Fowler, a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, and few candidates are talking about the strength of the stock market or economic growth.
“Generic tax references are pretty common,” she said. “But when they make tax statements, they typically are, ‘I will fight for lower taxes for the middle class.'”
Tiberi said Republicans should be proud to tell voters that cuts in corporate tax rates encourage companies to move their headquarters to Central Ohio and other parts of America.
Tim Kane, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, agreed.
“Tax policy is a winning issue; it’s one that I think Republicans are smart to embrace,” Kane said.
Kane ran in the Republican primary for Tiberi’s seat. He finished third.