Unforced GOP errors could help Democrats

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

The Democrats face a tough fight to retain their tenuous hold on the U.S. Senate, but they’ve gotten some unexpected help in recent weeks — from the Republicans.

The unforced GOP errors include one proposal that would raise taxes on half of all Americans and another to resume the Republican fight to scrap the increasingly popular Affordable Care Act.

Still, President Joe Biden’s negative approval rating doesn’t augur well for his party. The Senate is currently split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the deciding vote.

Republican recapture of the Senate would likely block Biden’s efforts to reshape the federal judiciary and would complicate, for the next two years, most congressional battles over government funding and other issues.

Further raising the stakes is the fact that strategists for both parties and independent analysts expect the GOP to regain the House, despite a better-than-expected Democratic showing in the post-census redrawing of congressional district lines.

More than 30 incumbent House Democrats are retiring, weakening the party’s prospects for holding several closely divided districts. Republicans need to gain only five seats to win the majority.

But sweeping congressional triumphs haven’t always produced similar Senate results. In 2018, when the so-called “blue wave” enabled the Democrats to flip 41 seats and win the House, Republicans gained two Senate seats.

Ironically, this year’s worst GOP misstep came from the man who is masterminding the party’s Senate campaign, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Flouting the advice of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to focus the GOP campaign on the Biden administration’s shortcomings, Scott issued an “11-point plan to rescue America” that detailed dozens of Republican goals.

“Americans deserve to know what we will do when given the chance to govern,” declared Scott, who is widely believed to harbor 2024 presidential ambitions. His platform was an extensive conservative wish list that included finishing former President Donald Trump’s border wall, eliminating federal programs that “can be done locally,” enacting term limits for Congress and federal bureaucrats, re-funding the police and stopping “left-wing efforts to rig elections.”

Buried in a vow to “stop socialism” and shrink the federal workforce by 25% was a proposal that “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.”

That last statement is true. The percentage actually rose to 61% during the pandemic. But it is misleading because it only refers to those Americans paying no federal income taxes: mostly lower income Americans but also millionaires using tax shelters.

“Federal income taxes do not include payroll taxes,” notes the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. It says only 20% paid neither federal income nor payroll taxes and “nearly everyone” paid some form of property tax, sales tax or excise tax.

Scott’s proposal, which is reminiscent of a controversial 2012 comment by then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, would raise taxes for half of all Americans. That is a non-starter politically, and Democrats promptly jumped on it.

“Republicans Rally Around Their Plan To Raise Taxes and Rip Health Care Away From Millions of Americans,” headed a typical Democratic National Committee release, citing Scott’s platform and Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s call to repeal Obamacare.

Speaking to the right-wing Breitbart News, the Wisconsin senator, who is seeking a third term this year, said if Republicans win back Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024, they “could actually make good on what we established as our priorities” like repealing and replacing Obamacare.

In 2017, they tried and failed to scrap Obamacare when they controlled the White House, the House and Senate. The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation’s polling shows the health law’s approval among all Americans has risen five points in the past two years to 58%.

While Democrats try to wrap Scott’s and Johnson’s statements around the GOP, other Republican candidates have been having their troubles.

In North Carolina, a verbal duel broke out between two GOP Senate candidates when former Gov. Pat McCrory accused Rep. Ted Budd of being “friendly” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Budd, who Trump endorsed in the race, called Putin a “very intelligent actor,” though he also said he was “evil.”

North Carolina is a state where Democrats hope to flip a GOP seat, along with Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the latter, at least five Republicans are vying in the May 3 primary with four of them seeking Trump’s backing.

Meanwhile, Democrats have their own problems, starting with Biden’s low job approval.

A recent Georgia poll showed likely Republican nominee Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star recruited by Trump, four points ahead of freshman Sen. Raphael Warnock. Biden’s Georgia approval is in the mid-30s.

Handicappers rate at least three other Democratic-held Senate seats as tossups: Arizona, where former astronaut Mark Kelly is seeking a full term; Nevada, where Catherine Cortez Masto is seeking re-election; and New Hampshire, where Maggie Hassan seeks a second term after winning by just 1,017 votes in 2016.

Historically, the same party tends to win all close Senate races. The current political climate suggests Democrats face an uphill fight to hold their 50 seats, but, in an unpromising year, a little GOP help could prove a big asset.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.