House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and other Republicans are downplaying their shocking loss in a deep-red Pennsylvania House district while insisting they continue to see their tax overhaul as a major winning message next fall. But their closing ads in the race — and others — suggest they’re a lot more likely to revert to culture war issues to try to save the House and win other tough races this fall.
Ryan urged his colleagues to keep selling tax reform on the campaign trail in a closed-door meeting Wednesday after their disastrous apparent loss in a heavily Republican Pennsylvania House district (there will likely be a recount), while waving off the race’s result as a fight between “two conservatives” that wouldn’t be replicated elsewhere and ignoring Democrat Conor Lamb’s attacks on the tax plan.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP’s main House super-PAC, spent millions on ads blasting Lamb for opposing the tax plan early on in the race. But the group and the National Republican Congressional Committee moved on from those ads in the race’s final weeks as Lamb gained steam, pivoting to attacks on hot-button social issues like immigration and sanctuary cities, like this one:
That follows a pattern displayed in nearly every other election over the past year: When Republicans actually bet big on closing campaign ads they keep reverting to the culture wars to try to rev up their listless base.
Republicans followed a similar playbook in the special election to fill Montana’s sole House seat last year, hammering the Democratic candidate for wanting to “grab your guns” while touting the National Rifle Association’s support for now-Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT). While they did that, Gianforte refused to say where he was on Obamacare repeal – and even attacked a reporter who dared push him on the issue.
While few GOP groups were on the air for Roy Moore at the end, the pro-Trump super-PAC running ads on his behalf hammered now-Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) for his pro-choice views.
That strategy has held true even in more suburban territory, most notably in Virginia’s gubernatorial election last year. Ed Gillespie, once a paragon of big-tent conservatism and advocate of immigration reform, pivoted from early ads talking about tax cuts to brutal spots focused on MS-13 and sanctuary cities.
Republicans took a slightly different approach in the tony Atlanta suburbs to get now-Rep. Karen Handel (R-GA) across the finish line, attacking Democrat Jon Ossoff as a tax-and-spend liberal who was weak on the military. But one of their key attacks in that race, as in all other House races including Pennsylvania’s, has been tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), where the emphasis has been much more about the coded “San Francisco liberal” than any particular policy gripe. Attacks on Pelosi remain a staple of any House GOP ad campaign, strategists are happy to acknowledge– and even some early Senate ads have featured Pelosi.
They tried that red-meat strategy even in the gubernatorial race in Democratic-leaning New Jersey:
The strategy has shown mixed results. But it’s likely to pop up in force especially in Senate contests, many of which are in more culturally conservative populist states like Missouri and West Virginia. It’s unclear how effective it will be in saving House members in swing and suburban territory, however, where Republicans might be forced to look to other strategies.
Pennsylvania was the first major election since the tax plan passed, giving Republicans a chance to push hard on an issue that had been a mere abstraction in the past. They argue that while the law remains unpopular overall, it’s improved its standing since it first passed late last year.
The CLF says its own polling found 50 percent of voters in the Pennsylvania district supported the law as of the beginning of March, after their ads ran, with just 35 percent opposing it. But they didn’t provide any data showing that it was a major motivator in the race – and the 15-point edge they say they have on that race isn’t as large as the 20-point margin Trump managed in the district in 2016, and nowhere near the huge disapproval rating for Pelosi the group found in the district. National polling suggests the law has become more popular, but is still underwater.
“The most important thing for the midterms is does the middle class think we cut their taxes? We’ve made progress selling the tax plan based on the progress I’ve seen since December but there’s still more work yet to be done,” CLF head Corry Bliss told TPM.
The GOP’s promise to run on the law sounds rather familiar to Democrats’ guarantee they’d run on Obamacare in 2010, which was polling at similar levels then to the tax law now, before largely abandoning it in a number of races ahead of their electoral shellacking.
Bliss promised: “You’re going to be seeing tax ads all across the country this fall.”
He may be telling the truth – Republicans need to tout their sole major legislative achievement and hope it pays some dividends. But Pennsylvania’s results prove that it’s far from a fix-it for the GOP’s political problems, and their actual ad spending suggests nervous strategists are likely to fall back more on Trump-like culture war attacks as they try to boost their base in a brutal electoral environment.