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The 2018 midterms, as told by Republican and Democratic campaign ads

Republicans are campaigning on culture wars. Democrats are focused on health care.

Planned Parenthood And NOW Rally On Capitol Hill Against GOP Health Plan
A protester holds up a sign during a rally against the GOP health care plan.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Less than two months from Election Day, the airwaves are saturated with political ads, and each party’s message is becoming loud and clear.

Democrats are zeroing in on health care and the GOP’s tax cuts for corporations. But you won’t hear Republicans talking much about their tax bill at all.

What was supposed to be a centerpiece of the majority party’s message — their massive tax law — seems to have fallen by the wayside. According to data compiled by Kantar Media for HuffPost and published Thursday, less than 12 percent of nearly 400,000 Republican television ads that have aired so far this year have mentioned tax law.

Instead, Republicans have focused on sowing fear — fear of Nancy Pelosi’s liberal culture taking over America. As Vox has reported, this has happened before; Republicans “backpedaled into cultural issues, and it looked desperate,” conservative pundit Guy Benson told me after Republicans’ major upset loss in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District.

Two years of government control hasn’t solidified a winning policy message for Republicans. So what was once their emergency campaign playbook in tight special elections has now become the closing message to voters. And the contrast with Democrats’ message couldn’t be more striking.

Republicans are pouring money into culture wars

The message from Republicans at every level — from Republican-affiliated PACS to the official campaign arm of the party to individual candidates — has highlighted culture wars between liberals and conservatives.

Take Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is in a surprisingly competitive race against Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. From the beginning, he has been trying to drive home that Texas is simply too conservative for a Democrat — but not just on policy.

The latest Cruz ad was about the NFL national anthem protests, attacking O’Rourke for his viral defense of football players kneeling for the national anthem, which O’Rourke called a “peaceful protest” about racial injustice and police brutality.

“In November, where will you stand?” the ad asks in conclusion.

In New York, the National Republican Congressional Committee — the national campaign arm for House Republicans — used a similar tactic to defend vulnerable Rep. John Faso’s district, attacking Democrat Antonio Delgado for his past as a rapper.

Faso and the Republicans have been less than subtle in their attempt to paint Delgado — a black, Harvard-educated lawyer and Rhodes scholar, whose 2006 rap album criticized the Iraq War — as not fitting in with the “culture” of the upstate New York district.

The last frame of the ad shows two side-by-side black-and-white photos of Delgado: one in a suit and the other in a dark hoodie.


As Republicans wage culture wars, Democrats are hitting hard on health care

Democrats are highlighting a different fear: reminding voters what Republicans tried to do with the health care system.

The party has spent more than $40.8 million on health care campaign ads in Senate races and $38.3 million in House races through the beginning of September — more so than any other policy issue, CNN reported.

On Thursday, House candidate Elissa Slotkin, an assistant secretary of defense under Barack Obama’s administration who is running to unseat Michigan Republican Rep. Mike Bishop, tweeted her health care message: Her mom couldn’t afford her premiums when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, because of preexisting conditions.

Slotkin’s ad is like countless other Democratic ads, trying to make the Republican health care debate personal. And playing on preexisting conditions is smart; the Trump administration is arguing in federal court that Obamacare’s protections should be ruled unconstitutional.

It’s been a winning argument so far. As Vox’s Dylan Scott writes, these ads are “all the proof you need to know that 2018 will be the inverse of the past two midterm cycles: Democrats are relying on Obamacare to carry them in tough races rather than Republicans exploiting it to bring them down.”

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