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Trump's tax cuts are taking a backseat in critical Pennsylvania election

  • While President Donald Trump promoted tax cuts in western Pennsylvania earlier this year, the issue isn't at the top of many voters' minds in a House special election there.
  • The tight election pits Republican Rick Saccone against Democrat Conor Lamb.
  • After initially drilling Lamb for opposing the tax plan, Republican outside groups have pulled back from the attack.
A car plastered with Trump and Saccone posters outside of a rally in Waynesburg, PA.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC
A car plastered with Trump and Saccone posters outside of a rally in Waynesburg, PA.

In a trip to western Pennsylvania in January, President Donald Trump promoted the recently passed Republican tax plan as a boon to workers and businesses in a region that helped to propel him to the White House.

The president trumpeted "tremendous tax relief" for families. Trump brought an employee of Pittsburgh-area H&K Equipment to the stage to talk about how he would spend his tax savings. Trump also listed the major Pennsylvania employers who planned to give employees bonuses after a massive reductions in their tax burdens.

"When we began our push for tax cuts, I promised that our bill would result in more jobs, higher wages and tremendous relief for middle-class families, and that is exactly what we have delivered," Trump said at the time. "There's only one thing — even I never knew how big it would be. It's much bigger — and you see it — than anybody anticipated. We kept our promise."

Trump's visit came partly as an effort to boost Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, who is running in a tight House special election in southwestern Pennsylvania's 18th District. On Saturday, the president is expected to head back there, in a new bid to promote Saccone's candidacy.

While most voters who spoke to CNBC in the red district this week at least modestly supported the tax plan or said they knew someone who benefited from it, the tax overhaul has not featured as prominently as an election issue as the president may have hoped in January.

Ahead of November's battle for control of Congress, the Pennsylvania race is seen as a crucial gauge of Democrats' ability to win House seats in red areas like the 18th District, which Trump won by 20 points in 2016. A strong U.S. economy and the tax plan will be a key selling point for Republican candidates in this year's midterms.

Trump may try to refresh voters' minds about the tax plan when he makes another visit to western Pennsylvania Saturday evening, just days before Tuesday's election. The law slashed tax rates for businesses and moderately reduced the tax burden on most individuals.

Democratic leaders in Congress have cast it as a giveaway to the rich and corporations at the expense of the working class. Republicans have cited corporate announcements of one-time bonuses or capital investment as evidence that the plan worked, although stock buybacks have also shot up since the tax overhaul became law in December.

What the candidates are saying

Rick Saccone meeting with supporters at a rally on Monday in Waynesburg, PA.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC
Rick Saccone meeting with supporters at a rally on Monday in Waynesburg, PA.

The 60-year-old Saccone, who has positioned himself as a champion of Trump's push to slash regulations and taxes, talked up the tax cuts this week in a rally with energy industry workers and executives. On Monday, he argued that the law helped businesses and individuals in his district.

"We had a great tax bill that we just passed," he told supporters at a VFW post in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. "That's helping not only the coal industry but other small businesses and medium-sized businesses and workers. You've seen a little bump in your pay. Some people are seeing more money in your 401(k)."

But after Republican outside groups initially unleashed a barrage of ads in the district slamming Saccone's Democratic opponent, 33-year-old former prosecutor Conor Lamb, for opposing the tax plan, their attacks have recently focused on other issues like immigration. Democrats in the district think the change came because the tax ads did not resonate with voters as much as the GOP hoped.

The Saccone campaign's barbs at Lamb this week have focused largely on other topics: calling Lamb a "chameleon" who shifts on issues and arguing the Democrat does not support the region's coal industry and relies on Washington Democrats to prop up his campaign.

Criticizing the tax plan has not been Democrats' top priority in the district, either, although former Vice President Joe Biden called the tax cuts "obscene" during Lamb campaign stops outside of Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Biden's proclamations that Lamb, will protect Social Security and Medicare appeared to resonate much more with the candidate's supporters. During Lamb rallies Tuesday, Biden warned that Republicans could try to cut social safety net programs to make up for budget deficits generated by the tax cuts and said Lamb would help to block them from doing so.

"If we do nothing in terms of cutting programs, if we just keep things as they are, America's gonna go flat bankrupt over the next 10 years. Not a joke," the former vice president said. "It's because this tax cut is not paid for. But they have a way to pay for it. And he's gonna get in their way, they're afraid."

Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb speaks to supporters at a campaign rally on March 6, 2018.
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC
Democratic congressional candidate Conor Lamb speaks to supporters at a campaign rally on March 6, 2018.

How voters feel

Unlike sentiment toward Trump's proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, feelings on the tax plan in the district were largely defined by partisan allegiance.

Michael Lee, a Saccone supporter and CEO of Charleroi, Pennsylvania-based Lee Supply Co., backs the tax cuts and said he expects his company to make a "substantial" boost to capital expenditures because of them. He added that his company is still waiting to see whether the tax changes have a big enough effect for the 130-employee company to bring on more workers.

Most likely Republican voters in the district — about 80 percent — back the tax plan, according to a Gravis Marketing poll released this week. About 8 percent of those Republicans disapprove of it, while roughly 12 percent are undecided.

Overall, the survey found less than half of likely voters — 48 percent — approve of the tax plan. Thirty-six percent oppose it, while 16 percent are uncertain, according to the survey.

The same poll found Saccone with a 3 percentage point edge over Lamb in the special election.

Among independents, who could prove critical in the 18th District and around the country in November, only about 32 percent of likely voters said they approve of the tax plan, versus about 43 percent who said they disapprove.

Sandy Catone, a nurse and Lamb supporter from Harrison City, Pennsylvania, said she has traditionally voted for candidates from both parties. But this year she decided to vote for Democrats after seeing what Republicans prioritized while holding Congress and the White House after the 2016 elections.

Catone highlighted Social Security, gun control and tax cuts as the issues she most cares about. As for the tax plan, she thinks it favors corporations and the wealthy.

"I have a major issue with that," she said.