Tax Debate Plays Out in TV Ads Targeting Key States Across U.S.

(Bloomberg) -- As the tax debate hits its latest crescendo in Washington, TV ads trying to influence the biggest rewrite of the code in three decades have increasingly targeted states with wavering Republicans, including Wisconsin and Maine.

Nowhere has the on-air battle been more intense than in upstate New York. Syracuse has been the top market for such ads, which are sponsored by special interests and billionaires, an analysis of ad data since Aug. 1 shows. The area’s fluid partisan politics and its worries about an endangered state and local tax deduction explain why.

“It’s a perfect place for those ads,” said Ken Goldstein, a University of San Francisco political science professor who studies political advertising. “You have swing members in a state with high state and local taxes in a media market where you can hit a bunch of congressional districts.”

The need to sway individual lawmakers was underscored Thursday night when the collapse of a key compromise left Senate Republicans scrambling to salvage the legislation and weighing changes that would make some of the planned cuts temporary. Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate and can only afford to lose two votes if they want to pass the bill without Democratic support. Senate leaders hope to pass the bill on Friday.

Millions of Dollars

Republican-aligned groups have pledged to spend tens of millions of dollars on broadcast, cable, radio and online advertising to try to build support for the tax plan and counter charges from Democrats that it primarily benefits wealthy Americans. The effort could help President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders score their first major legislative win of the year.

On the air, it has been a lopsided fight: Roughly three-quarters of the more than 24,000 ads run on broadcast TV and national cable have backed the Republican effort, according to a Bloomberg review of data from Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political and issue advocacy advertising.

The legislation can use all the support it can get. A Morning Consult/Politico poll this week showed just 36 percent of voters support the House version of the tax bill.

Advertising Storm

As the first rounds of voting on House and Senate bills have occurred in recent weeks, the volume of tax ads has accelerated. From Nov. 23 through Nov. 29, roughly 4,900 spots ran nationwide on broadcast television and national cable, including 851 that ran in the Maine markets of Portland and Bangor.

Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine who is a critical vote on the tax bill, has said she’s holding off on a decision on whether to back the overhaul plan. She has said it would be hard to vote yes if the final version doesn’t allow state and local property tax deductions of up to $10,000. She also wants to see a separate bill on health insurance high-risk pools signed into law.

In recent months, tax ads have also blanketed Indiana, Missouri and Iowa, all places won by Trump in 2016 and where overhaul proponents initially thought they could sway Democrats.

It’s difficult to compare the scope of the tax-bill advertising with similar efforts in the past. The ad volume is close to the total that Senator Marco Rubio ran during his 2016 presidential campaign.

While the Syracuse market is relatively small -- it ranks 85th in TV homes -- it had attracted 7 percent of all spots related to the tax debate from Aug. 1 through Nov. 29.

Republican Districts

The market touches New York’s 22nd, 23rd and 24th congressional districts. All three seats are held by Republicans, but they’re also areas that have shown some political independence in recent presidential elections. Former President Barack Obama won the 24th and nearly won the 22nd in 2012, while Hillary Clinton won the 24th in 2016 by 4 percentage points.

Members of Congress from the area have expressed concerns about the treatment of deductions for state and local taxes, often called SALT by tax wonks. The Senate bill would end the deduction entirely, while the House version allows as much as $10,000 in deductible property taxes.

All three Republicans who represent districts that touch the Syracuse television market -- Claudia Tenney, Tom Reed and John Katko -- have expressed concerns about losing the SALT deduction. Reed is also a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee who worked to negotiate a deal on the deduction in the House bill. Loss of the deduction would shift more taxes onto high-income, high-tax states like New York, California, New Jersey and Illinois, all of which lean Democratic.

Conservative Groups

Groups backing the Republican effort that have aired spots in the Syracuse market include the American Action Network (a conservative group aligned with House Republicans) and 45Committee (a group that was heavily funded by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the wealthy Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs, during the presidential campaign).

Those running ads in the market who oppose the Republican legislation include the League of Conservation Voters, Not One Penny (a campaign launched by progressive groups that oppose all tax cuts for millionaires, billionaires and big corporations), Priorities USA (the top super PAC that backed Clinton in 2016), a New York teachers union, and Tom Steyer (the billionaire Democratic mega donor who is also running his own $20 million ad campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment).

The spots reviewed by Bloomberg don’t include ads that run only on local cable systems, online or the radio. The broadcast ads are typically the most costly to run and tend to be the most precisely targeted because of that.

Biggest spenders

Nationally, the American Action Network has been the most active advertiser on the tax debate. Since the start of August, the group has run almost 7,400 spots in 14 states. Almost a third of the group’s spots have run in New York.

After AAN, Americans for Prosperity has been the second most active sponsor. The group is part of the political network associated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Network officials say their groups have already spent more than $10 million on tax messaging.

Wisconsin television markets have also been heavily covered in the tax debate. The state is home to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fierce advocate for the tax overhaul, as well as Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.

Johnson had expressed concerns about the Senate’s tax bill because he felt it didn’t provide enough additional relief for businesses that use so-called pass-throughs, whose owners pay taxes through the individual code. Republican groups have leaned heavily on Baldwin with advertising because she’s facing re-election next year from a state that Trump won in 2016.

Below are the top five markets for spot counts on broadcast TV advertising related to the tax overhaul debate, as well as the top five sponsors according to Kantar Media’s CMAG (Aug. 1 through Nov. 29):

Syracuse1,758
Green Bay1,581
Milwaukee1,450
Kansas City1,260
Cedar Rapids1,164
American Action Network (pro)7,383
Americans for Prosperity (pro)4,229
Not One Penny (anti)2,465
45Committee (pro)1,908
Senate Majority PAC (anti)1,281

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