Republicans are investing enormous amounts of political capital and dollars to pump up support for the GOP tax overhaul in a risky, last-ditch legislative undertaking ahead of next year’s midterm election.
President Trump is promoting the bill as a Christmas present for the American people, and a group aligned with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has spent $20 million so far on ads and outreach in communities across the nation. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell is set to fast-track the bill through the chamber next week.
Problem is, voters just don’t seem to be that interested.
Polls show most Americans view the tax bill as benefiting the wealthy and corporations, skeptical it will do much for middle-class taxpayers. Outside analyses of the $1.5-trillion package echo those assessments despite revisions.
Republicans are nevertheless rushing ahead on a plan that may please wealthy donors, but it is opposed by most major categories of voters, including independents, women, minorities and young people, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Even among Republicans, support is hardly overwhelming, with 60% approving of the plan, 15% disapproving and 26% unsure.
Such lackluster enthusiasm and Republicans’ failure so far to sell their tax plan to middle-class Americans raises questions about whether the issue will be the slam-dunk in the 2018 midterm election that GOP leaders predict. After the failure to repeal Obamacare, Republicans are desperate for a political win.
“I don’t see any political reward in passing or not passing tax reform legislation,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I don’t think the Trump base of the Republican Party sees this as an issue that would suddenly cause them to run to the polls.”
Part of the problem has been the unusual speed by which Republicans are muscling through the House and Senate tax bills, which permanently slash corporate rates to their lowest level in decades, 20%, but make only temporary cuts to individual taxes while doing away with popular write-offs and deductions.
Republicans have been unable to build public momentum without the prolonged hearings and debates that would be normal for legislation of this magnitude.
But GOP donors have lost patience with the lack of legislative accomplishments, telling lawmakers not to bother calling and asking for campaign checks for the coming midterm election until they have something to show for their hold on Congress and the White House.
“From the very start, we said that failure is not an option,” Ryan said last week after House Republicans passed their version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
The speaker made it clear that Republicans were delivering on their promise. “We, collectively, asked the country in 2016 to give us a chance to go work for them,” he said. “This conference, today, did one of the greatest things we could possibly do to make good on that promise.”
Perhaps more than any other Republican, Ryan has taken it upon himself to build support for the tax plan. The Ryan-aligned American Action Network has spent $20 million since August on television and radio ads and other tools to try to bolster lawmakers, shore up voter support for the tax bill and help shape public opinion in more than 50 House districts.
Amy Walter, the national editor at Cook, called Ryan’s undertaking remarkable if not unprecedented.
“It’s one thing for the speaker to be an active fundraiser for his party,” said Walter. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a speaker raise money like this for a group that is promoting specific policies as robustly as this.”
She added, “Then there’s the silence on the other side.”
Democrats have launched no comparable counter-effort against the tax bill, even though Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a fundraising powerhouse whose haul is expected to meet if not surpass Ryan’s effort, despite being in the minority party.
Instead, Democrats are relying on the content of the tax bill itself to turn away voters.
“We don’t need to match them dollar for dollar because they're pushing bad policy that hurts the middle class,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of the Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC.
“Ryan and the Republican outside groups have spent $19 million trying to sell this terrible tax plan, but the reality is no amount of money can dress this up and make it look good,” he said.
To be sure, Democrats are not doing nothing. The House Democratic campaign arm is running digital ads, including on Facebook, against 39 House Republican lawmakers, even some who voted against the tax bill, “because ultimately their entire party will be held responsible for this vote,” a spokeswoman said.
And in a twist, Democrats secured various web domain addresses for the name of the GOP tax bill — including taxcutsandjobsact.com and taxcutsandjobsact.org — which all direct users to a single site where people can upload their own videos explaining why they oppose the Republican tax bill.
One woman, who introduces herself as Julie and holds a cat, says, “This cat has a better life than the average middle class will have under the Republican tax bill. This cat can go to the doctor. This cat has enough food. This cat has a warm house. Under the Republican tax bill, many people won’t.”
Voter attitudes may certainly shift over time, as happened with Obamacare, which rarely polled well among voters while Obama was president and only became popular when it was seriously threatened with repeal by Trump and Republicans.
A similar road may be ahead for the tax bill. Republicans set many of the bill’s effective dates — including the new individual tax rates and end of various itemized deductions — for the 2019 tax year, which means taxpayers may not begin to fully feel the impact until well after next fall’s midterm election.
Corry Bliss, executive director of American Action Network, takes the long view in pushing the legislation to passage, expecting that over time the group’s work — and the bill itself — will eventually increase enthusiasm among voters.