Tax cuts and other fiscally conservative positions are in the backseat of Republicans' 2018 campaign rhetoric. In fact, the Associated Press (AP) found in a new report that tax cuts have been replaced by something much more alarming: fear.
In December 2017, President Trump signed off on tax-cut legislation that he promised would lead to positive outcomes "for businesses, for people, for the middle class, [and] for workers." Following passage of that legislation, reports indicated that as many as 90% of employees nationwide would take home more money as withholding rates were lowered. The tax cuts were hailed as such a success that Lowe's announced it would give bonuses and expand benefits packages in response.
One would think Republican candidates might campaign on these tax cuts, but it appears more are interested in playing up their constituents' fears of immigration, socialism, and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.).
"We wish it got the pitch forks out and it doesn't," GOP ad maker Will Ritter told the AP in reference to the shift from promoting economic policy success to fearmongering.
In July, at least two congressional Republican candidates in states that don't touch the southern border gained national attention for their heavily Trump-centric ads. Jason Emert of Tennessee created his own version of a 2013 insurance ad featuring the disgraced former University of Tennessee coach Butch Jones. Unlike Butch Jones, Emert promised, "When I say I'm going to do something, I actually mean it." Emert went on to pledge his support to the president and his tough immigration policies by literally building a wall in his own yard.
Later in the month, Rep. Ron DeSantis (R—Fla.) released a campaign ad where his wife insisted he was "so much more" than just a Trump supporter. DeSantis demonstrated this by using a "Make America Great Again" sign to teach his children how to read and also building a physical wall with them in the middle of their living room. Unlike Emert's wall, however, DeSantis' wall was created with toddler building blocks.
The heavy focus on the wall signals a shift away from fiscal conservatism not just as a campaign talking point, but as a policy goal. Just weeks before Trump's inauguration, Congressional Republican leaders revealed that U.S. taxpayers would have to pay for a border wall, with one estimate putting the price of the first phase at $18 billion. That does not include maintenance costs, which would be an additional $48.3 billion during the wall's first decade. Both estimates are likely too low, as the Cato Institute found they rely on "unrealistically cheap construction costs."
The tribalistic fears that Republicans are running don't connect well on paper, but Republicans are tying them together regardless and hoping the emotional impact will overshadow the intellectual dissonance. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R—N.Y.), for example, has released several ads tying Democrat challenger Anthony Brindisi's "dangerously wrong" views on immigration—including claims that he desires open borders—to alleged support for Pelosi. Tenney only mentions tax cuts in one of her ads, and only after accusing Brindisi of supporting Pelosi. Brindisi, who has already announced that he would not support any bid from Pelosi to lead the party in the future, responded to the strategy by saying, "I'd think after almost two years of being in Congress, the first advertisement that my opponent would run would be something about her accomplishments."