Politics & Government

Special interests unleash campaign style advertising blitz on tax reform

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., points to boxes of petitions supporting the Republican tax reform bill.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., points to boxes of petitions supporting the Republican tax reform bill. AP

If you thought campaign ads were tough to escape, brace yourself for the tax debate.

As the Senate begins debating what could be the tax code’s biggest overhaul in 31 years, special interest groups are bombarding television viewers and web browsers with millions of dollars worth of ads.

Republicans are especially anxious to score a win after the collapse of the health care debate in the Senate last summer. A group close to House Speaker Paul Ryan has spent $20 million since August on the tax effort, arguing that it will boost the economy and help the middle class.

“We wanted to get there early and build the runway for tax reform as a winning message,’ said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the American Action Network’s Middle-Class Growth Initiative, which has targeted more than 60 House districts, launching TV, digital and radio ads.

The House cleared its version of a tax overhaul November 16, but a tougher course remains in the Senate, where several Republicans already have voiced skepticism about the proposal.

Back home, special interests are pushing hard to influence constituents. American Action Network said the group remains “committed to continuing to share the merits of Congress’ tax plan with the American people.”

Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, part of the network associated with the billionaire industrialist Koch Brothers, have spent more than $10 million to date on advertising and other efforts to boost the GOP tax effort, including ads targeting Republicans and Democrats.

America First Policies, a non-profit aligned with President Donald Trump, is mounting a six-figure ad buy on conservative radio networks, urging listeners to “join the fight to pass President Trump's tax reform package and fulfill our promise to put America first."

The group launched two earlier rounds of tax reform ads, including digital ads in 30 congressional districts and a TV ad featuring its chief strategist and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He urges “fellow patriots” to call their members of Congress and push for the GOP tax plan.

“Friends, the special interests will do anything to stop us. We can’t let them,” Lewandowski says in the 30-second spot.

Progressive groups acknowledge they will be outspent, but argue that they’ve got public opinion on their side.

“On the Republican side, it’s about a return on the investment for wealthy donors,” said Tim Hogan, a spokesman for Not One Penny, a coalition of progressive groups that has launched a seven-figure advertising campaign. “They will spend tens of millions, but they’re not moving the needle on public opinion.”

Priorities USA, a Democratic non-profit group, plans to spend $2 million on online and TV buys targeting Republican incumbents.

And Democrats have picked up new allies. After Senate Republicans tucked the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate into the tax bill, groups that opposed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare have joined the latest battle.

Save My Care, a pro-Obamacare group, has launched a six-figure ad campaign that includes a national spot, Sneaky Repeal, along with TV ads in Alaska, Arizona and Maine that urge the three Senate Republicans who voted against an Obamacare repeal in July to do so again.

“You’ve been a hero for (the state) and the country, but what you stood for could be lost,” say the 30 second spots singling out Sens. Lisa Murkowski R-Alaska, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Save My Care is also running digital ads against 14 House Republicans who voted for the House tax plan, targeting several Republicans in districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won, including the California seats held by Reps. Ed Royce, David Valadao and Mimi Walters.

Environmentalists are also getting involved, targeting a provision that could allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“Our goal is to ensure the refuge doesn’t get turned into an oil field,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, which is spending $550,000 on TV ads that target vulnerable House Republicans.

Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, who has pledged to spend $20 million of his own money on an ad campaign asking viewers to sign a petition demanding Trump’s impeachment, has committed another $10 million for an ad that targets the tax plan.

“They won’t tell you that their so-called tax reform plan is really for the wealthy and big corporations while hurting the middle class,” Steyer says in the ad.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark