Remember the Tax Cuts? Republicans Don’t Seem To Despite the Booming Economy

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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,” Mr. 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. Republican leaders in Washington talk frequently about the booming American economy, which they say has been fueled by the tax-cut package that President Trump signed into law late last year. Republicans celebrated the Commerce Department’s report on Friday that economy grew by 4.1 percent in the second quarter this year, its fastest quarterly rate since 2014. That Trump boom was supposed to doom the vaunted “blue wave” this election year — or at least shrink it to a ripple.

But that is not how it is playing out on the campaign trail.

Advertising data show that while Republicans still talk more about the new law than Democrats, neither party mentions it much. Instead, the airwaves are dominated by more general promises to create jobs and, from Republicans, by darkly tinted wedge issues such as immigration, meant to rally the conservative base. A Republican super PAC is blitzing the Ohio airwaves, warning that electing Mr. 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, Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

A Wesleyan Media Project analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data also shows Republicans are rarely bragging to voters about the economy’s strength.

Democrats, meanwhile, are weaponizing the 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 American 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 didn’t.

Mr. O’Connor and his allies have now spent more money attacking the tax cuts than his opponent, Troy Balderson, and Republican groups have spent extolling them, even though the Democrat is being outspent overall, two to one.

The National Republican Campaign Committee has run ads criticizing Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Representative 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 consecutive 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. Mr. Balderson, a state senator, won a crowded primary this spring with Mr. Tiberi’s support.

Mr. 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 Mr. Balderson to focus on issues that can best grab Republican voters’ attention. Regardless of the outcome less than two weeks away, 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,” Mr. 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 reduces 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 slightly more Americans oppose the law than favor it, 48 percent to 47 percent. Opposition was higher among college-educated voters, which could support Mr. O’Connor’s argument in the 12th District, which features the most educated electorate in Ohio.

Attendees at Mr. O’Connor’s union-hall fund-raiser on 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

Mr. O’Connor said many of the voters he talks to feel like 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 Mr. Trump as primarily benefiting the wealthy and leaving American 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.”

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, running for re-election against Representative James B. Renacci in a state that Mr. Trump won handily, said Republicans “should be ashamed of their tax bill, and I think they are.” In an interview, Mr. Brown said he would be willing to devote an entire debate with Mr. Renacci just to the tax law: “I think this is a fundamental difference between the two parties.”

Some Republicans are more muted, if they talk about it at all.

The tax law “takes a back seat” in campaign advertising, said Erika Franklin Fowler, the 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.’”

Some Republicans — and their supporters in business and the conservative donor community — have urged their candidates to lean into the tax argument this fall. Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, have both made a habit of praising the tax bill and the strength of the economy. Mr. 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.

Not content to run simply on the new law, Republican leaders in the House and in the Trump administration are pushing what they call “Tax Cuts 2.0,” a still-in-progress package that includes making the individual tax cuts in the new law permanent. House leaders say a vote on that bill will put Democrats in a bind, forcing them to either oppose middle-class tax relief or to extend a law that every Democrat in Congress voted against last year.

“Tax policy is a winning issue, it’s one that I think Republicans are smart to embrace,” said Tim Kane, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank at Stanford University. “Times are pretty good. This should be a Republican win.”

Mr. Kane ran in the Republican primary for Mr. Tiberi’s seat. He finished third, well behind Mr. Balderson.

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