White House advisor Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Donald Trump, speaks about tax reform at a 2017 forum with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in Biddeford. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — An early theme is emerging among the Democrats’ messaging against U.S. Sen. Susan Collins ahead of her nationally targeted 2020 re-election race: her vote for fellow Republicans’ 2017 tax plan.

It was a key vote for Collins in the first year of President Donald Trump’s presidency. The sweeping plan put corporate and personal income taxes on track to decline by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Collins has been targeted over the vote in two ads by a group run by Democratic operatives and by one of the five Democrats running to replace her in 2020. 

The tax cut was sweeping. The Maine senator has argued the economic growth from it would offset a budget gap. That hasn’t happened. But the ads stretch in linking the vote to other items. The tax cut also endangered the Affordable Care Act, though Collins also helped preserve the health care law.

Collins argued alongside other Republicans the tax cut would pay for itself. It hasn’t. The Republican tax bill slashed the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent while cutting individual income taxes and closing loopholes in the biggest tax overhaul since the 1980s. Those cuts weren’t offset by Congress, so the plan was accompanied by a federal estimate that it would increase the deficit by $1 trillion over a decade. 

(Dark money groups already a factor in Maine’s targeted U.S. Senate race)

Republicans hit back, saying the economic growth would offset the deficit impact. Collins expressed confidence on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in late 2017 it would “actually lower the debt.” That hasn’t happened. Her office backed slightly off the argument this week while defending the package at large. 

While the U.S. economy grew by 2.9 percent between 2017 and 2018, a May report from the Congressional Research Service found the tax package was responsible — at most — for 5 percent of what would have been needed for the tax cuts to pay for themselves.

Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in a Tuesday statement the tax bill “put money back in the pockets” of Americans and “created growth that will put even more money in their pockets.” She added “some of that money will come back to Washington in the form of revenues.”

Ads against Collins have stretched to link her tax vote to certain programs and contain limited discussion of the tax package. The 16 Counties Coalition, a campaign of Maine Momentum and a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose donors, has hit Collins on the tax vote in two TV ads so far. One says it jeopardized Social Security and Medicare and the other is centered on linking the vote to contributions for corporate political action committees.

There are bigger problems with the first one, which The Washington Post’s fact-checker hit for ignoring a political reality that Social Security and Medicare are unlikely to be cut and a Collins measure was aimed at preventing one particular Medicare cut. 

Both ads also just discuss the corporate piece of the package. The liberal Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy expected a benefit of more than $1 billion to Mainers in 2019 — $563 million for individual income taxpayers, $293 million for corporations and $198 million for pass-through businesses.

There is a political argument to be had about the balance of any tax cut. Approximately 65 percent of taxpayers got a cut under the plan in 2018, according to a report from the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. Taxes went down on average across income groups, but the cuts skew heavily toward the top 5 percent of earners who pay a majority of income taxes.

Collins helped preserve the Affordable Care Act, though her vote on the individual mandate put it at risk in a court challenge she opposes. The Maine senator’s record on former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is nuanced. Collins voted against it in 2009 and later voted to repeal it while saying in her 2014 campaign it was too late to fully repeal it.

In 2017, she opposed one bid to kill the Affordable Care Act and blocked another before voting for the tax package repealing the unpopular mandate that individuals have health insurance or pay a penalty. She cited a promise from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to pass fixes aimed at offsetting the policy impact of the move, but they went nowhere while Collins won other changes to the tax bill.

The Trump administration has since used the tax bill’s repeal of the so-called “individual mandate” to try to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act in court. House Speaker Sara Gideon, one of five Democrats running against Collins, argued the vote jeopardized the health care law in a Portland Press Herald interview on Monday. 

Maeve Coyle, a Gideon spokeswoman, said the challenger “supports keeping the current law in place, including the individual mandate, to ensure that Mainers with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied health coverage.”

Collins has also opposed the Trump’s administration’s court fight against the law, urging the administration in July to “fix the law’s problems legislatively.” For her party, Collins’ stance on the law is a bold one, but it hasn’t kept it from being a campaign issue.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...