Conservatives are confident they have a good story to tell as the 2018 midterms cycle intensifies. Their only question: Is anybody listening?
That tension was on vivid display at a gathering of the billionaire Koch brothers’ political and policy network, held this weekend at a palm-studded resort surrounded by mountains.
Here, donors toasted the recently enacted tax-reform bill while network officials and Republican lawmakers touted regulation rollbacks and tax cut-tied bonuses. And as the crowd assembled on Saturday, a New York Times headline blared, “Every one of the world’s big economies is now growing.”
But there was an undercurrent of unease when talk turned to the midterms, a reflection of the ominous historical trends, low presidential approval ratings and ultra-energized progressive base all confronting Republicans this year.
“Part of it’s just the historical nature of the off year for the side that’s more in power—we know that, we see the numbers out there,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the network’s main grassroots-focused group that plays heavily in politics.
“Americans, and this is not a bad thing, by the way, they’re more skeptical than they used to be about government, about Washington, D.C.,” he told reporters. “It means we have to do a really good job explaining that there are some good things happening that actually help improve folks’ lives across the country. That does make it harder to explain those benefits, have it break through, when there is kind of a healthy skepticism.”
For many Americans, that skepticism is, specifically, of President Donald Trump and his party—as evidenced by his underwater approval ratings and recent Democratic victories across the country, from the Virginia governor’s race to a Wisconsin state Senate seat.
“Speaking as an individual, I do think the 2018 election is going to be very challenging for Republicans,” said Art Pope, a major North Carolina-based GOP donor who is influential within the network, pointing to the races in Virginia and Wisconsin in a conversation ahead of the gathering. “At the legislative level and the congressional level, the Democrats do have a fair amount of momentum as of right now.”
The Koch network and the broader Republican Party are racing to halt that momentum, testing the theory that the concrete benefits of a strong economy can smooth over the challenges that often confront the president’s party in the midterms.
“Since the passage of tax reform, both public and private polling show signs of an improving environment—but Republicans still face a challenging environment and history suggests we should lose the House,” warned the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, in a memo last week. “There is no positive outcome in November if we do not show that we cut taxes for the middle class and are working to make their lives better. Period.”
To that end, this weekend, Koch network officials said that they plan to spend “on the high end of $300-$400 million” on politics and policy in this election cycle, the largest investment they have ever made in the midterms.
As part of that, the network, which spent around $20 million pushing for passage of tax reform last year, now intends to spend another $20 million to sell the measure, with potential tactics ranging from town halls and phone banking to TV advertising and door-to-door grassroots pushes.
“We’re all in,” Phillips said. “We know the challenges out there at the state and federal level. But we’ve seen the results these policies are having on Americans, improving their lives, and we’re all in to try to protect those in what we know is going to be a challenging year.”
Compounding that challenge: in past elections, improving economic news alone has not been enough to counter other strong environmental factors in midterm elections. For example, in 2006, voter opinions of the economy improved ahead of Election Day—but the contests were still considered a referendum on the unpopular president, George W. Bush, and the war in Iraq, and the Republicans took a drubbing.
“The strongest predictor of midterm elections is presidential approval, not economic growth. This isn't to say that the economy is irrelevant, of course, simply that the referendum seems to be mostly on the president,” said John Sides, a professor of political science at The George Washington University who has studied this issue. “Obviously, the president's approval rating is relatively low and the economy is doing relatively well. If Trump's approval rating does not improve, it's unlikely that economic growth is going to insulate Republicans from potential losses in November.”
Here at the conference, network speakers were complimentary of Trump’s economic agenda and stressed their positive experiences working with the administration, despite some differences on trade and immigration issues.
But back in Washington, Republican strategists and lawmakers have long expressed frustration that efforts to tell a positive story about conservative achievements on Capitol Hill are often complicated by controversies surrounding Trump and his Twitter account.
“Republicans should stick to an economic message in November, it is their best chance,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist who served as communications director for then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “But when people are living and consuming everything President Trump says at every moment, it makes it very difficult for anyone to stay focused on good economic news when the next thing you’re talking about is his delusions of a deep-state conspiracy against him, or alleged payoff to a porn star.”
Asked for comment, White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah replied in a statement: “The issues impacting everyday Americans such as rising wages due to President Trump’s historic tax cuts, a foreign policy that puts America first, and fixing our nation’s broken immigration system, is what will really matter when voters head to the polls in November.”
Jeff Glendening, the state director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, acknowledged that tweets from the president have demonstrated an ability to dominate the national narrative. But he argued that tweets aren’t tangible—and for some workers, at least, tax cuts are.
“The economy is something that really affects them,” he said of voters. “Twitter is a lot of rhetoric. It’s not necessarily real-world. People look at rhetoric as not necessarily meaningful, but they do look at tax cuts, they see the economy beginning to blossom, that’s real to them. That affects them, their bank accounts, what they spend money on.”
And Pope, who readily described challenges the GOP faces, also argued that Democrats could sustain blowback for voting against tax reform—a message that could be especially impactful in states Trump won.
“If tax reform is as effective at creating jobs and raising wages as many people think…I think the growth in the economic numbers, jobs, higher wages, help blunt the Democrats who voted against tax reform,” he said. Nodding to years when Republicans romped in the midterms, he continued, “That will hurt the Democrats, blunt their efforts to make 2018 for them what 2010, 1994 were for Republicans.”
On Saturday evening, Phillips hosted a panel with North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.
“Do you see tax reform ending up as an issue this fall that we’re able to work with, to use?” he asked the lawmakers.
“Shame on us,” Cornyn replied, “if we don’t make it an issue.”