REPUBLICAN AGENDA

Exclusive: GOP Engages Political Ground Game to Defend Tax Overhaul in 2018

Republicans readying election-year tactics of phone-banking and canvassing to sell tax reform

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel is overseeing a political ground game effort to drum up support among prospective voters for the tax overhaul package moving through the GOP-controlled Congress for President Trump's signature. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
  • For several months, state Republican Party affiliates have been pushing the GOP tax bill through a “ground game” initiative targeting voters in potential 2018 battleground states.

  • GOP volunteers and operatives have knocked on over 364,000 doors and made over 145,000 phone calls in 18 states from the first week of September through Dec. 14.

Republicans are on the verge of enacting a major tax overhaul package that has been a key goal of party leaders for years. Now they’re getting ready to make it a central issue as they face voters in next year’s midterm elections.

For several months, state Republican Party affiliates have been pushing the GOP tax bill through a quiet “ground game” initiative targeting voters in states that are emerging as potential 2018 battlegrounds — even before the final contours and details of the package were set by GOP negotiators on Capitol Hill.

In total, according to Republican National Committee data provided exclusively to Morning Consult, GOP volunteers and operatives have knocked on over 364,000 doors and made over 145,000 phone calls in 18 states from the first week of September through Dec. 14.

The House on Tuesday passed the tax package conference report on a 227-203 vote. The proposal now heads to the Senate. If lawmakers there clear the measure, as expected, it will head to the White House for President Donald Trump’s signature.

Some Republicans view the campaign — which has been prominent in major battlegrounds like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Nevada — as a dry run for next year’s midterm elections, in which the GOP will defend majorities in both the House and the Senate. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the effort “will serve as a blueprint as we work to expand our majorities in 2018 and beyond.”

“Utilizing a national field program to promote policy, not just candidates, is unprecedented,” McDaniel said in a statement provided to Morning Consult Monday.

In addition to door-knocking and phone-banking, the initiative has involved the circulation of a petition supporting the tax overhaul effort, along with meetings in congressional districts either to explain the tax plan or to recruit new supporters of the GOP’s agenda.

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Utilizing a national field program to promote policy, not just candidates, is unprecedented.

In Pennsylvania, where a Senate race between Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and a Republican challenger is likely to dominate headlines alongside difficult races for moderate Republican House members in the Philadelphia suburbs, GOP supporters have knocked on over 195,000 doors. Republicans have knocked on over 20,000 doors each in Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and Texas, according to RNC data.

Those four states are all expected to have competitive races next year. Nevada could prove a difficult climate for incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller, who was listed among the 10 least popular senators in their home states in Morning Consult’s most recent Senator Approval Rankings. Texas could be challenging for GOP House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas whose districts backed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. Michigan and Ohio are respectively home to Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Sherrod Brown — two leading Democrats who sit on the Senate Finance Committee and opposed the tax bill.

New Hampshire, where Republicans have knocked on over 20,000 doors and made over 5,500 phone calls, does not have a Senate contest next year. But its competitive 1st Congressional District has flipped between Democrats and Republicans every two years since 2010. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, the Democratic incumbent in that district, is not running for re-election.

Republican operatives have held nearly 10,000 one-on-one meetings with voters, according to the RNC, and have recruited volunteers based on the GOP’s tax initiative.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) speaks after House votes to pass tax bill

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, said in a Monday interview that mobilizing these types of resources in a non-election year is a rare strategy. Tasks like canvassing and phone-banking are usually left to outside groups that support either Democratic or Republican causes.

But it’s a tacit GOP acknowledgement that tax overhaul is the party’s single big-ticket legislative achievement since Trump took office — even if it’s broadly unpopular, Burden added.

Republican lawmakers supporting the tax package may feel the heat from voters in November 2018. A Morning Consult/Politico poll shows that 21 percent of registered voters would be much less likely to vote for to re-elect their member of Congress if that lawmaker backed the tax bill.

“When this is the major legislative action that’s around your neck, as a Republican there’s a lot of reasons to get ahead of that,” Burden said. He added that the effort could also signal the strength of the GOP’s operation to strong potential Democratic candidates thinking of challenging an incumbent next year.

Voter contact-style tactics to sell the budding tax plan have been used in recent months by right-leaning groups such as Americans for Prosperity. Counterparts on the left such as Not One Penny have used similar strategies in advocating against the measure. The Democratic National Committee did not immediately return a request for comment regarding whether it’s taken any official measures like phone-banking or canvassing related to the tax bill.

Tim Hogan, a spokesman for Not One Penny, said Monday that the coalition’s supporters have placed 1.2 million phone calls since Oct. 1, and that the campaign against the GOP tax agenda will not subside if the bill becomes law. Not One Penny is a group supported by numerous left-leaning advocacy groups, including MoveOn.org, Indivisible, Americans for Tax Fairness and unions such as the Communications Workers of America.