Republicans said their tax cuts would help them win elections. But what if they can’t even keep a Republican seat in a Trump-loving district?
Tuesday’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District is being hailed as a test of the GOP’s messaging — and by all measures, it’s not going well. The race, between state legislator Rick Saccone — a man who calls himself “Trump before Trump was Trump” — and Democrat Conor Lamb, a young, moderate attorney and former Marine, was supposed to be an easy win for Republicans in a district that President Donald Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016.
Instead, it’s a toss-up. A Monmouth poll Monday showed Lamb narrowly edging out Saccone for the seat, which opened up after Republican lawmaker Tim Murphy resigned amid reports that he’d asked a woman he was having an affair with to get an abortion.
Republicans have thrown a lot of weight, and money, behind Saccone. GOP groups have spent close to $10 million in advertising and media messaging, long focused on tying Lamb to the Democratic establishment, vilifying House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and touting the GOP tax plan — Republicans’ only major legislative win from Trump’s first year in office. Then in recent weeks, GOP groups substantially shifted their messaging away from taxes to focus on harsh immigration policy.
Trump’s surrogates have stumped for Saccone, and the president has gone to the district twice, most recently for a campaign rally in which he called on Congress to defund “sanctuary cities” and supported giving drug dealers the death penalty. The White House insisted Trump’s January visit was purely to bump the new tax law.
“Given all the celebration of passing the tax plan, you’d think it would have much more resonance than it has had now,” Alison Dagnes, a political scientist and political media expert at Pennsylvania’s Shippensburg University, said.
This poses an important question for Republicans in the year ahead: If an increasingly popular tax bill can’t break Democrats’ enthusiasm going into the midterm election year, what can?
The tax plan is getting more popular — but it’s not securing a lead
At first, the GOP’s tax bill loomed large in Pennsylvania; Lamb and Saccone clashed over the policy in their first televised debate.
“It’s not the ‘crumbs’ that Nancy Pelosi and her crew on the left say,” Saccone said. “These people are very happy to have the bonuses that they received.”
For weeks, the bill was the subject of countless ads and consumed Saccone’s talking points. Trump even came to the state for a conveniently located GOP tax rally in western Pennsylvania in January, which the White House insisted was not directly related to Saccone’s candidacy.
According to a March 8 Gravis poll, which showed Saccone up by 3 points, the tax bill has a 48 percent approval rating, largely split on party lines. Among Republican voters in the district, 80.1 percent approve of the bill. Since Republican passed the tax bill in December, it has generally grown in popularity — but in Pennsylvania, it hasn’t been enough to secure a stable lead in the polls.
Saccone has a big operation behind him. The official campaign arm for House Republicans reported spending another $619,664 on media ahead of the March 13 election for Pennsylvania’s 18th District House seat, bringing the total to $3.5 million on media buys as of last week. Paired with Trump’s visit, Republicans have been showing some last-minute panic.
“When Trump leaned so hard into this district, sending his surrogates and then going in Saturday — they are taking this as the bellwether of what is going to happen in the midterms and taking this as the ‘ride or die’ for what it could be,” Dagnes said.
At the beginning of February, almost two-thirds of GOP ads were about the Republican tax law, according to a Politico analysis. By election day, the same groups had pivoted sharply to decrying so-called sanctuary cities, as Politico reported:
Since the beginning of March, tax ads have been essentially non-existent. Only two are on the air now — one from the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action which briefly mentions the tax law, and a radio ad from a progressive group attacking Saccone for supporting the law.
The district, which currently covers the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, is rated as an R+11 district, a heavy Republican tilt in part due to the state’s partisan gerrymandering that the state Supreme Court recently ruled unconstitutional. In 2014 and 2016, Democrats didn’t even have a candidate to challenge Republican Murphy.
Now, Republican-aligned groups have greatly outspent Democrats in the race. According to the Washington Post, as of February 27, Saccone-allied groups had spent a total of $9.1 million on the race, between the Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and others. Meanwhile, Democratic groups and labor unions had spent less than $1 million.
The GOP is road-testing its messaging with voters in a district with the kind of Republican-leaning electoral makeup that Democrats will have to win over in November if they want to take back the majority.
And it doesn’t appear to be sticking. Too much else has happened.
“Nothing about this tax bill is going to have that kind of staying power given the frantic and massive news cycle of events swirling around us,” Dagnes said.
Republicans are doubling down on their tax plan in the long term — not on Saccone
The polling in Pennsylvania hasn’t stopped Republicans from putting their tax plan front and center in the long term.
“Look, it’s going to be a centerpiece — without a doubt,” Matt Gorman, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official campaign arm for House Republicans, told the Washington Post of the GOP’s messaging strategy for 2018. “The law is getting more popular both in public and internal polls. Voters don’t need to take our word for it; they can see the companies announcing bonuses and perks for themselves.”
Instead, if things go south in Tuesday’s race, Republican operatives have already started planting the seeds for a blame game that doesn’t come near the GOP tax plan, grumbling about the weakness of Saccone as a candidate. The chair of Pennsylvania’s GOP called the district “Democratic.”
And if Saccone wins, it will just have been another scare — one that will be erased by November when Pennsylvania’s congressional districts will be completely redrawn and favor Democrats even more.
“If you could answer this question on Nov. 1, I could predict what happens: Did the middle class think we cut their taxes?” Corry Bliss, executive director of the GOP Super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund, told McClatchy’s Alex Roarty and Katie Glueck.
For now, the answer is still up in the air — and the party appears to be betting its political future on voters coming around.