Six months in, it’s a mystery whether President Trump’s tax law will help Republicans in the midterm elections.
Voters feel positive about the economy, and polling on the generic congressional ballot isn’t as bad for Republicans as it was several months ago. But the tax law has never become overwhelmingly popular, and aspects of it could be concerning for swing voters.
Both Republicans and Democrats believe that the tax law will be a winning issue for them in the midterms, leading each side to note the six-month mark with a series of events.
“Tax reform, to be blunt, is the game-changer our economy needed,” said Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at a press conference Wednesday.
At a separate press conference held at the same time, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the tax law a “shameful, dark cloud of a tax break for corporate America and the richest people.”
The law, which lowers rates for individuals and businesses, is the most significant piece of legislation that Republicans have passed since getting control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. It is also a partisan measure that got no votes from any Democratic lawmakers.
When Trump signed the bill, he predicted that he wouldn’t have to spend much time traversing the country to sell it because people would be happy when they started to see more take-home pay.
“I think it's selling itself,” he said.
Nonetheless, Republicans and Democrats have spent the last six months in a messaging battle over the law, which was the focus of considerable resources this week.
Congressional Republicans marked the anniversary with hearings, press conferences, media appearances and floor speeches. They have highlighted bonuses and wage increases that companies have announced since the law was enacted, as well as survey data showing increased business optimism.
Trump also touted the tax law this week in a speech before the National Federation of Independent Business in D.C. and at a roundtable and rally in Minnesota.
“As a result of our massive tax cuts, millions of Americans are receiving much bigger paychecks,” Trump said at the rally.
Democrats and outside liberal groups have devoted energy this week to highlighting what they see as the law’s downsides. They argued that the tax law mostly benefits wealthy individuals and corporations and are connecting the deficit-increasing tax cuts to Republicans’ interest in making cuts to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. They also argued that the tax law’s repeal of ObamaCare’s individual mandate will lead to an increase in health-care premiums.
The tax law is still fairly new, and it’s too early to give a final verdict on how it will ultimately affect the economy. Nonetheless, Republicans are encouraged and Democrats are underwhelmed.
Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the right-leaning American Action Forum and a former Congressional Budget Office director, pointed to several promising signs in economic data, such as increased business confidence and planned capital expenditures, as well as strong retail sales data in May.
“Early indicators I think are quite positive, but it’s early and you never know for sure,” he said.
But Michael Linden, a fellow at the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, said that job-growth levels from before and after the tax law’s passage are similar and that some measures of business investment haven't shown escalated growth in that area.
“It’s basically impossible to see the effects of the [Tax Cuts and Jobs Act] in any of the economic data,” he said.
Voters have a favorable opinion about the economy. A Gallup poll released earlier this week found that Americans’ satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States has hit a 12-year high. Additionally, polling on the generic congressional ballot shows less of a lead for Democrats now than was shown in December and January.
“A thriving economy will be a catalyst for Republican success this fall and the tax bill has played a major role in putting us back on a path toward greater prosperity,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt.
But most polls have also found the tax law is viewed unfavorably. Recent polls from Quinnipiac and Monmouth Universities have each found disapproval of the law exceeding approval by 7 percentage points. The Quinnipiac poll shows the law is popular with Republicans but not with Democrats and independents.
“What’s clear is that support for the tax law has flatlined. Republicans thought it would be their electoral salvation and it is not going to be that,” said Tim Hogan, spokesman for the anti-tax law group Not One Penny.
Democrats have looked at the polling data as an indication that their message on the tax law is resonating with voters.
“Speaker Ryan and vulnerable House Republicans failed to pass a real middle class tax package that puts working families first, and they’ve understandably failed to sell this bill to the American people over the last six months,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law.
Republicans maintain that the tax law will help them in the midterms.
“I’m convinced many voters, now that they’re seeing a bigger paycheck and more opportunity at their work for promotion or a better job, are going to strongly oppose anyone who wants to take that away,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas).
Still, Republicans see areas where the tax law could cause them some issues.
GOP strategist Susan Del Percio said that the law’s $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction could be a big deal in New York, New Jersey and California, which have a number of swing House districts. Additionally, ObamaCare premium information is likely to be finalized in the fall, and Del Percio said that Democrats will make a big deal out of that if the premiums go up, as expected.
“That is a problem,” she said.
The best way for Republicans to message on the bill, Del Percio said, is to get business owners in their districts to talk about how it is creating jobs close to home.
It’s unclear how big a role the tax law will really play in November.
Messaging on the tax law has often been overshadowed by the latest Trump-related controversy, such as the separation of parents and children at the border.
Del Percio said Republicans should try to localize their races and keep Washington out of them.
“If this becomes a question between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, this is not going to end well for a lot of Republicans in swing districts,” she said.