Georgia GOP counting on tax overhaul to help during elections

Home Depot employees applaud U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan during a visit to the Home Depot Store Support Center earlier this month. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Home Depot employees applaud U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan during a visit to the Home Depot Store Support Center earlier this month. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Georgia Republicans plan to lean heavily on the recently passed tax overhaul as they hit the campaign trail this year to counter a surge of civic activism on the left and the headwinds that face a party in power in a tough political environment.

They see the recent low unemployment numbers and some encouraging economic metrics as proof that the $1.5 trillion tax cut that Congress passed without a single Democratic vote in December is working, and they’re banking on President Donald Trump’s most significant domestic policy achievement buoying them in November.

Georgia Democrats are honing their response, too, with claims that the tax plan is a corporate giveaway that benefits the wealthiest Americans and big business while leaving middle-class voters in the lurch. And they got an early boost in last week’s special election for a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania, which was won by a Democratic critic of the overhaul.

The political fault lines are sure to harden with advocacy groups lining up on both sides of the issue. National groups have spent millions already boosting or blasting the changes. And lawmakers tout the list of Georgia corporations that have offered their employees bonuses, raises or other benefits because of the overhaul.

The campaigning around the overhaul in Georgia began in earnest this month when most of the state's GOP delegation joined U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan at Home Depot's Store Support Center to trumpet the benefits of a plan he said improved "the worst tax code in the industrialized world." He was welcomed with an explosion of applause by employees.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, one of Ryan’s deputies on the House GOP leadership team, said the overhaul will be an easy issue for incumbents to take to the campaign trail in a midterm vote that has put Republicans on the defensive.

“It has been amazing to listen to people talk about ‘Hey, I’ve got more money in my check,’ ” Collins said. “We’re seeing retail go up, we’re seeing businesses go up. These are the kinds of things that we’ve just got to go out there and sell.”

No surprises

Public opinion of the tax plan was initially low — polling from The New York Times and Survey Monkey showed the legislation with a 37 percent approval level as it moved through Congress late last year. But support has steadily grown, with the same organizations reporting a 51 percent approval level last month.

Collins attributes the polling gains to voters seeing the subsequent boosts to their paychecks. They were initially sold a lie by Democrats that the tax plan would prompt economic calamity, he said, but voters are now seeing the economic gains.

“It didn’t surprise me that this would turn,” he said.

But there could be a limit to how much the GOP can sell its tax plan in its upcoming races. Conservative groups poured more than $7 million into the Pennsylvania special election with a message that initially focused on the tax cut but then shifted to illegal immigration and other hot-button issues.

Democrat Conor Lamb, who called the tax cut a “betrayal” because it adds to the national debt, declared victory over a veteran Republican who campaigned with a promise that the overhaul would turbocharge the economy.

And Democrats, who forged a united front in Congress against the plan, see it as a way to rev up the party’s base in competitive U.S. House elections in Atlanta’s suburbs. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson said voters will see past the one-time bonuses that amount to little extra cash for many workers in the long term.

“People out here are scuffling trying to make ends meet,” the Lithonia Democrat said. “That still continues despite the extra 30 or 40 bucks in the paycheck every week.”

The tax cut or bonuses, Johnson said, are “just simply not enough to alleviate the strain that people have been feeling for years and years and years and been working hard and are still not able to make ends meet.”

‘It’s too early’

On the economy’s front lines, some small business owners have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the new tax law. Some say they aren’t yet sure whether they will see lasting benefits — while some said they’ve seen a marginal boost in their pay, others said the jury is still out on the changes.

“It takes time for people to become confident to spend again. People are apprehensive with a new government because you never know how it’s going to go,” said Roxy Aguilar, the owner of the Taste of Britain shop in downtown Norcross.

“Business is definitely back on track and up from last year,” she said. “But I don’t know if the taxes have made any difference yet, to be honest. We have to let it settle down.”

Her specialty store, crammed with culinary delights from across the pond, is at the epicenter of one of Georgia’s more competitive areas. Trump won Georgia by 5 percentage points in 2016 but lost the diverse, fast-growing county — the first time it had voted Democratic since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Republicans will need to keep Gwinnett conservatives in the fold if they are going to keep their grip on one of the more competitive U.S. House seats in the state. Lawrenceville-based Republican Congressman Rob Woodall faces seven challengers — six of them Democrats — in a district Trump only narrowly carried two years ago.

William Makson hasn’t noticed much of a change in his wallet or the balance sheet of VSOP Taproom, which sells specialty olive oil and vinegar.

“Things are the same as they were the last two years. I’m not seeing any change in my pocketbook yet either,” he said. “It’s about the same. I was somewhat against the changes in the first place, since it benefited mostly large corporations. I don’t really see how it impacts us as a small business.”

That’s not what Georgia’s Republicans in Congress hoped for when all 12 of them emphatically supported the tax bill last year. And even supporters are reluctant to claim victory as the effects of the cuts land in voters’ paychecks.

“I feel like there’s excitement, but I don’t know if we’ve felt the impact quite yet,” said Lorraine White, who co-owns an antique store with her mother. “I feel like there’s a lot of positivity. Spending is up a little, but I feel like there should be more.”

“I want to feel encouraged,” she added, “but it’s too early.”

Others say the extra dollars in wallets may not seem like much — but give it time. Wayne Epps, who runs an auto parts shop in Norcross, said though he was ambivalent about Trump’s plan, he wasn’t ready yet to write it off.

“My vision sometimes is not very far out, but on this one let’s wait and see,” said Epps, who said he’s seen a slight uptick in business. “It’s like planting a seed and harvesting it.”

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