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Same as it ever was: In closing ads, both parties gravitate to familiar messaging

Last year, it seemed like the midterms would be about tax cuts and Donald Trump. With just days to go before Election Day, it's more complicated than that.
Image: A woman votes in the U.S. congressional and gubernatorial midterm elections in Norwalk
A woman votes early in Norwalk, California, on Thursday. Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Last year, top Republicans crowed that their tax cuts would protect vulnerable GOP incumbents from a potential blue wave.

And in the shadow of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democrats were already pointing to the midterms as a way to deal Trump the rebuke they thought he should have received in 2016.

But those issues — tax cuts for Republicans and anti-Trump messaging for the Democrats — never became universal messages in paid TV advertising as both parties scrambled for control of Congress.

Much of that has to do with the massive battlefield in the House, where Democrats are competing both in districts Trump lost handily in 2016 and those where he won, as well as a Senate landscape that drastically benefits Republicans.

Both the tax and Trump messages can be effective when deployed in certain districts, but neither have the across-the-board strength to define the cycle in the way that Republican anger at Democratic-controlled Washington defined the 2010 tea party wave.

Instead, Democrats and Republicans have coalesced around two messages they believe do have that power.

Democrats have long pegged health care as a winning issue that allows them to paint Republicans as playing political games with protections for pre-existing conditions and overall coverage.

And the GOP has fallen back on its tried-and-true strategy of linking candidates to an unpopular House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to warn against a liberal takeover of Congress.

As campaigns ready their closing arguments, it’s no surprise that voters are seeing a heavy dose of both attacks.

On the GOP side, one recent ad from California GOP candidate Elizabeth Heng mocks Democratic Rep. Jim Costa for walking “in Nancy Pelosi’s shoes,” depicting him walking down the street in red high-heeled pumps.

Here’s just a sampling of what Republicans say about Pelosi and Democratic candidates in the dozens of ads this month that stick to this script:

And it’s clearly getting to some Democrats, as some of their closing arguments include them defiantly standing by their previous promises not to vote for Pelosi for House speaker.

But while Republicans continue to make this pitch, there’s been a new flourish that seeks to capture the same anger that helped the GOP make gains in the past. The new big thing in Republican advertising is augmenting the Pelosi messaging with claims that Democrats are part of a “liberal mob.”

The pro-Republican outside group Future45 has spent nearly $2 million to date on a national ad that features, in order: anti-Kavanaugh protestors at the Supreme Court, Antifa window-smashing, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an “Abolish ICE” banner, Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren, more Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, a pro-impeachment sign, more anti-Kavanaugh protesters, and a burning American flag.

That’s enough to fill up any Republican boogeymen-themed bingo board.

The messaging is also apparent in more targeted attacks, like this new take from the National Republican Congressional Committee in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District that argues that “liberal extremists [are] tearing America apart." Republican Rep. Mike Bishop is seeking re-election, and the ad takes a shot at his challenger, Elissa Slotkin, by saying, "That's why Nancy Pelosi and her allies are spending millions to force Slotkin on Michigan.”

Even in a race famous for one of its candidates’ acts of violence — Montana’s at-large district, where Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter last year — there’s no shying away from similar language. Gianforte’s latest ad links black-clad agitators breaking glass to Pelosi’s “liberal mob.”

While Republicans are deploying a harder-edged version of their anti-Pelosi messaging as they make their final sale, Democrats are leaning on their old standby of health care.

The issue continues to poll among the most important for midterm voters, and Democrats in virtually every district have made the issue a centerpiece of their campaign.

Just like there have been all cycle, Democratic ads in the last few weeks have included spots with voters telling their personal stories; ads attacking lawmakers for past votes to repeal Obamacare; Democrats leaning on health care to address unique challenges in their districts like access to rural health care; and hits on lawmakers who supported the GOP health care plan that would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The push has even put many Republicans on defense as they cut their own ads in the final days responding to Democratic attacks on the issue.

It’s no surprise that these issues are the main closing arguments on each side after a year of these messages dominating. But we’re also starting to see some targeted use of the anti-Trump and pro-tax plan messages in the final days as well.

Republican incumbents like Virginia Rep. Scott Taylor and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick are both touting the tax cuts in new ads.

And the Congressional Leadership Fund is out with a bevy of new spots this month that frame races as a choice between a supercharged economy with low taxes or a Democratic government that jeopardizes those gains.

But rather than running in districts where Republicans are playing offense or trying to claw back a seat that’s demographically trending blue, the tax argument is mostly being made in either areas with strong GOP DNA (like Virginia’s central 5th district or Kansas’s 2nd) or in states where complaints about high state and local taxes are particularly central to Republican identity (California’s Orange County and New Jersey).

Democrats have peppered in anti-Trump messaging, too, focused primarily in GOP-held districts Trump either lost in 2016 or won by a narrow margin.

Virginia Democrat Jennifer Wexton’s most recent ad hammers Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock as “Trump’s unquestioning foot soldier”; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is attempting to prevent an upset in Florida’s 27th Congressional District with Spanish-language ads looking to link the Republican nominee to Trump; and Colorado’s Jason Crow uses his kids to demonstrate that he’ll stand up to Trump.

There are more than a dozen other ads evoking Trump as part of the closing argument, but none in a district the president won by more than a few percentage points.