WASHINGTON - Republican leaders and campaign officials are scrambling to do more to sell voters on their signature legislative achievement - a $1.5 trillion tax cut - amid poor polling numbers, rank-and-file members who lack a consistent message and a president who refuses to focus on the issue.
President Donald Trump, when given the chance to tout his party's tax law, has repeatedly gone off topic, including on Saturday when he traveled to Cleveland for a tax roundtable. While other speakers sang the law's praises, Trump mixed in remarks China, North Korea, Syria, immigration, the mayor of Oakland, Congress's budget deal, his own poll numbers and the media's coverage of his presidency.
That followed a similar event in West Virginia last month when Trump tossed his prepared remarks on taxes in the air - deeming them "boring" - and talked about the need to toughen drug laws.
"He goes in and campaigns on an issue, and the challenge is he then talks about executing drug dealers," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, the tax-cutting group. "Why do you think the press is going to cover the tax cuts if you've given them the much more exciting issue?"
Lacking a consistent messenger at the top, GOP lawmakers and outside groups are increasingly anxious about their ability to fill the void, particularly ahead of midterm elections that will determine whether the party can keep its narrow control of Congress. The hundreds of lawmakers running are struggling to set a consistent message, especially one that can overcome constant Democratic attacks and break through a cacophony of other news coming from the White House and elsewhere.
With Trump's low approval ratings pulling down candidates in battleground states and districts nationwide, party officials say they need to be able to go on offense with a positive message about what they've been able to accomplish while in control of Congress and the White House.
Party leaders remain convinced the law remains their hope for November success, but some Republicans have begun expressing frustration at how difficult the law has been to sell to the public, and question whether that will turn around in time to help them in the November midterms.
"It should be an easier sell than it is, particularly in an economy with a 4 percent unemployment rate and a pretty healthy environment," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
"The fact that it's not happening is that political assumptions and core beliefs are getting in the way of objective reality," Cole added. "We're in an era where voters, whether on the left or the right, don't think anything good ever comes out of government."
The $1.5-trillion-plus tax-cut law remains poorly understood by voters, according to strategists, pollsters and Republican lawmakers themselves. The law got a polling bounce at the beginning of the year as workers noticed bigger paychecks and companies broadcast bonuses. But more recently, the public has cooled to the law, and an NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll last month found 27 percent of respondents calling it a good idea while 36 percent said it was bad.
"I think there's just a general skepticism, and why shouldn't there be? [Voters are] so used to being disappointed by Washington politicians," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who is running for Senate against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in another of the year's top Senate races.
"I also think people are waiting to see the proof," Cramer later added.
Leaders' exhortations to members to focus on the law range from the serious - such as weekly talking points pointing out the top five ways workers and families would benefit from the law - to the symbolic. House leaders each week award a jar of Jelly Belly candy to the member of their caucus deemed to have worked the hardest to promote the law. Winners have included Reps. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., for a local tax reform event at a Home Depot, and Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., for a statewide tax tour.
By August, one lawmaker will win a "Ronald Reagan Award" for completing a checklist of assignments aimed at pushing the law, including holding 12 town hall meetings, making seven radio or TV appearances, and delivering three House floor speeches.
If they're unable to sell the law, Republicans are aware of the consequences. Many look to Democrats in 2010, who were wiped out in that year's midterms after they couldn't sell the public on former president Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.
"Democrats tried to tuck tail and run," recalled Cam Savage, a GOP strategist working on races across the country. "Many of them lost in 2010 because they weren't willing to defend that piece of legislation."
Hoping to save 2018 Republicans from similar losses, outside GOP groups are trying to step in where the president has not. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity is playing a lead role in the Koch networks' $20 million campaign for the law. The group is running ads in battleground Senate race states such as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota condemning Democratic incumbents for opposing the law, and is sending activists to man phone banks and knock on doors in key states.
"There's so much disinformation out there, and Americans have a healthy skepticism of anything that comes out of Washington - and that's a good thing, by the way, a good healthy skepticism," said Tim Phillips, Americans for Prosperity's president. "But it means you genuinely have to demonstrate the positive results when there is a policy that is good that emanates from Washington, and these tax cuts and tax reform are a genuinely good policy."
Some Republicans are skeptical of the polling and say the more the public learns about the law, the more they'll like it.
"You know I think most polling is flawed," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "When Americans learn that their tax rates are going down, that their standard deduction is doubled so more of their money is protected from taxation, that they get more help with raising kids and saving for those children's education, and when they see the results of new bonuses and pay raises and investment, they're very supportive."
The tax law permanently cut corporate rates from 35 percent to 21 percent while reducing most income tax rates for individuals, although independent analyses have found that wealthy Americans reap a larger share of the individual tax cuts. It made a host of other changes, including increasing the child tax credit, repealing the Affordable Care Act requirement for most Americans to carry health insurance and rearranging the deductions used to get money back on tax returns.
"The biggest challenge overall - and this is the responsibility of Republicans - is that people don't have a clear understanding of what's in the legislation, that it doubles the standard deduction and lowers rates. They just don't have that understanding," said GOP pollster David Winston, who advises the party leadership in Congress. "The challenge here, and it's squarely on Republicans' shoulders, is they have to make very clear what's in the bill."
The pressure on Republicans to drive a positive message on the law was underscored by a blowup last week over comments by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., suggesting that there was "no evidence whatsoever" that corporations that had reaped a windfall were distributing those profits to their workers.
Democrats pounced on Rubio's comments, which echoed their own complaints about the law, and conservative groups denounced Rubio angrily. He returned to the remarks in a subsequent opinion piece, repeating his core claim about the corporate tax cuts but couching it in effusive praise of the GOP tax law as a whole.
"He can take it back 300 times and it doesn't matter," Norquist said.
Meanwhile, Democrats have missed few opportunities to criticize the law as a giveaway to corporate America that granted scant benefits to workers and the middle class. Republicans themselves have fretted that some voters don't seem to have noticed that their paychecks have gone up. And because this year's tax filing season was under the old code, voters weren't confronted with the law's benefits, even though Republicans endeavored to assure them at news conferences and TV appearances that next year things will be better.
The National Republican Congressional Committee says internal Republican polling finds the law viewed positively in every competitive House seat. And GOP strategists remain confident that if Republican candidates focus in on the issue, they can use it effectively against Democrats who voted unanimously against the legislation, especially in the pro-Trump red states that make up many of the top Senate battlegrounds this year. Democrats will have a hard time explaining why they voted against giving voters a lower tax bill, Republicans say. Although few Democrats have gone so far as to say they want to repeal the law, Republicans are arguing that Democrats would seek to "undo" it if they retake the congressional majority - and they pounced earlier this week when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would look to make bipartisan changes to the tax code if Democrats take Congress.
Democrats scoff at GOP claims that the tax law is a good political argument for Republicans in the midterms. A number of competitive House races are taking place in states such as California and New York where voters were hit by a change in the law that limited taxpayers' current ability to deduct state and local taxes from their federal tax bill. And Democrats say their research shows voters are aware that the tax bill awards huge benefits to corporations and the wealthy, but are confused about whether they themselves will get anything out of it.
"I don't blame them for continuing to talk about it, because they have no other legislative accomplishments to tout," said Meredith Kelly, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "But ultimately we've seen no evidence that this is something that will help them hold onto their already weak grip on the House."
Indeed, numerous GOP lawmakers and campaign strategists acknowledge that their message hasn't yet broken through amid a constant stream of controversy on other topics, often emanating from the White House.
"Republicans need to paint a clear picture of what a Democratic takeover would really mean for jobs and the economy," said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "And yes, the president could be a powerful communicator on that issue if it becomes a consistent focus of what he talks about. This is a president who can move markets with a single tweet."