Politics

Vulnerable Republicans in Political Catch-22 on Tax Overhaul

Democrats will attack them for the GOP tax plan even if they vote against it

New York Rep. Dan Donovan said the tax plan “kills the people who I represent.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It’s decision time on the ultimatum Republican leaders have been issuing to members all fall: Pass a tax overhaul or wave the House majority goodbye. 

But some of the party’s most vulnerable members, many from high-tax states in the Northeast, have come out against the House tax plan over its curtailing of deductions for state and local taxes and mortgage interest. Others are still undecided, afraid of how the measure will affect their districts. 

“Voting for this hurts the majority,” Rep. Peter T. King said on the eve of Thursday’s vote. The New York Republican opposed the plan long before the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added him to its target list last week.

“We could end up losing all the members in the Northeast,” King said, acknowledging an incongruity between what leadership is saying about the policy and political strategy going into 2018 and what members from his region see in their districts.

“You get into a tough race, some things are beyond your control,” he said. “But this is basically an unforced error. We’re doing it to ourselves.”

Without a legislative victory on health care to tout in their districts, Republicans have been adamant that they need to pass something — anything — on taxes. And GOP strategists admit that those scare tactics have likely boosted the chances of the tax bill’s passage Thursday. 

Watch: Which Members of Congress Might Not Be Back in 2019?

All politics is local

But House races, as any campaign consultant will admit, are localized affairs. Many Northeastern Republicans survived in districts Hillary Clinton carried last fall, in large part by distancing themselves from the national GOP and localizing their races. 

As many of the same members did on health care, some of these lawmakers are now distancing themselves from the national party on the tax vote. Even so, it’s likely the Republican tax plan will still be used against them. 

New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance, who was also strongly against the GOP health care effort, plans to vote against the tax bill. A DCCC target next year, Lance sits in a district Clinton carried by 1 point.

“We are judged based upon how we vote,” he said Wednesday, dismissing any concerns about his own vulnerability. 

Besides Lance, New York Rep. Dan Donovan also opposed the GOP health care plan and will vote against the tax overhaul. (New Jersey Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo fits into that category, too, but he recently announced he won’t seek re-election, making his district more competitive for Democrats.)

California Rep. Darrell Issa, who tops Roll Call’s list of the 10 most vulnerable incumbents, backed leadership on health care but is against the tax bill. New York Rep. John J. Fasothe third most vulnerable House incumbent, also backed leadership on health care, but he came out against the tax plan Wednesday evening. 

Two additional New York Republicans have come out against the measure: Rep. Lee Zeldin and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s own head of recruitment, Rep. Elise Stefanik. The NRCC is touting the plan in digital videos

At least four Democratic targets were undecided as of press time: New York Reps. John Katko, California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (the 5th most vulnerable incumbent), New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan A. Costello. Katko and Costello voted against the earlier health care bill.

Donovan said the tax plan “kills the people” in his district. He’s facing a primary threat from former GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm and a Democratic challenger the national party is excited about. Donovan emphasized the importance of members doing what’s best for their own districts.

“If this is harmful for your constituents and you’re still voting ‘yes,’ then yes, I would be worried about that person,” Donovan said. “If it’s good for the people back home and you’re voting ‘no,’ I’d be concerned about that as well.”

Attacks loom

Democrats aren’t about to give these members a free pass.

The DCCC has signaled it will attack all Republicans for the tax vote, regardless of how they voted, just as it did after the House GOP’s health care vote earlier this year. It started running Facebook ads this week in 36 GOP districts, including against members who had already said they’d vote against it. 

After the House GOP budget vote last month, Democratic recruits in New York and New Jersey tried to use the vote against Republican incumbents. Max Rose, an Army veteran challenging Donovan in New York’s 11th District, went after the incumbent for not working harder to “kill” the measure.

Blanket attacks don’t always work. Some moderate Republicans overcame Democratic attempts to tie them to candidate Donald Trump last year, arguing they were nothing like Trump and the real estate mogul wasn’t a Republican. 

But Democrats aren’t using Trump so much these days; they’ve rediscovered Speaker Paul D. Ryan as their boogeyman. And it’ll be much harder for rank-and-file members to distance themselves from Ryan than from Trump.

On the eve of the tax vote, Donovan shrugged off threats of Democratic attacks.

“They’re going to attack us no matter what,” he said. 

NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers is excited about the tax overhaul, but acknowledged some of his most vulnerable members still aren’t happy with it. Still, he scoffed at King’s suggestion that the tax plan could hurt the party’s chances of keeping the majority. 

“We’ve got to try to do more for some of our colleagues who are in special circumstances, and we’re working with them,” the Ohio Republican said. “We didn’t write this on tablets in stone. It is written in ink and pencil, and it will be changed before it’s enacted.”

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