The Republican Party’s opening message for the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district was “the Trump tax cuts gave the average middle-class family a $2,900 tax cut.” Its closing argument was “Democrats love illegals and hate God.”
“They say the other side is energized,” Republican Rick Saccone said at his campaign’s final rally in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, last night. “Let me tell you, they’re energized for hate for our president. They have a hatred for our president …. Many of them have a hatred for our country. I’ll tell you some more — my wife and I saw it again today, they have a hatred for God.”
Saccone’s decision to close on culture war hysterics wasn’t some personal improvisation. In recent weeks – as Democrat Conor Lamb pulled even with Saccone in a district that Republicans have held since 2000, and which went for Trump by 20 points in 2016 – Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund bombarded the airwaves with ads painting Lamb as America’s No. 1 fan of sanctuary cities, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Nancy Pelosi.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. Republicans had been assuring themselves for months that the Trump tax cuts would save their skin in 2018. Democrats may have spent much of last year with a double-digit lead in the generic congressional ballot – while wildly overperforming in special elections – but the day Nancy Pelosi and Company decided to unanimously vote against tax relief for the middle class was the day their big “blue wave” turned back out to sea.
For a brief period in early February, it looked like this wishful thinking just might bear out: Approval for the tax cuts creeped up, along with the GOP’s standing in the polls. The Republican leadership felt free to push its preferred message in Pennsylvania’s 18th. Ed Gillespie may have felt compelled to do his best Trump impression in the Virginia’s governor’s race – but now that tax cuts had been passed, the GOP could finally campaign on its fiscal agenda (seasoned with a few spoonfuls of Pelosi-bashing):
And then, support for the tax law stagnated. Democrats regained a nearly double-digit lead in national polls, while Lamb nipped at Saccone’s heels – and, by all appearances, GOP operatives realized that their base liked tax cuts far less than they hated liberals and illegals. According to Politico, for the first two weeks of February, “roughly two-thirds of the broadcast television ads from Saccone’s campaign, the super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee mentioned taxes.” That dropped to 36 percent the following week and 14 percent the week after. During the final weeks of the PA-18 race, tax-themed ads have nearly disappeared.
The GOP’s decision to pivot away from “bread-and-butter” issues shouldn’t be surprising. Last year, the Republican Party’s health care and tax cut bills polled as the two most unpopular pieces of major legislation in more than three decades. Once the latter became a “win” for Donald Trump, Republican voters warmed to it. But the law still commands, at best, the support of a narrow plurality of voters. And while middle-class tax cuts have broad appeal, deficit-expanding ones for the wealthy and corporations do not – while cuts to Medicare and Social Security, which such tax slashing will necessitate (according to the GOP leadership) have even less. Thus, if Republicans wish to center the 2018 campaign on questions of budgetary priorities, Democrats would be happy to oblige:
A new analysis of voter opinion by political scientist Larry Bartels testifies to Paul Ryan’s problem. Analyzing data from YouGov’s 2016 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, Bartels finds:
[P]opular commentary on the political parties tends to focus on internecine conflict rather than on broadly shared values … on the Republican side the primary focus has been on “the president’s brand of hard-edge nationalism — with its gut-level cultural appeals and hard lines on trade and immigration,” as a recent New York Times report put it (Martin and Peters 2017). Moreover, these “profound ideological differences within the Republican coalition” are supposed to “have become much more pronounced in the Trump era” (Hohmann 2017).
In fact, however, rank and file Republicans seem to be relatively united and energized by “hard-edge nationalism,” but less united on the role of government, with a sizeable minority expressing rather un-Republican enthusiasm for a strong welfare state.
…[A] majority of Republicans endorse government efforts to regulate pollution, provide a decent standard of living for people unable to work, and ensure access to good health care, while substantial minorities favor reducing income differences and helping families pay for child care and college.
The modern GOP’s top policy priorities do not command majority support from its own voters. The party’s mass appeal is rooted almost entirely in the cultural resentments and racial paranoia that colors those presidential remarks that Republican legislators pretend not to hear. But GOP operatives can’t close their ears to what conservative voters are actually calling for; not if they wish to save their party’s House majority.
So, expect to hear a lot more Republicans denouncing Nancy’s Pelosi’s “Abolish God and borders” agenda between now and November.