They call it “crushing the middle class” or “the big squeeze” or just plain “irresponsible.”
Regardless of the description they use, Republican candidates for governor in some of the Democratic Party’s most dependable strongholds are finding receptive audiences of voters fed up with too many taxes.
Incumbent Democratic governors in Connecticut and Illinois, which rank among the states with the heaviest tax burdens, find themselves trailing or tied in polls against Republican challengers a week before elections.
In Maryland, another deep-blue state with sky-high taxes, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, had to vow “no new taxes” while struggling to convince voters he deserves a promotion to the governor’s mansion. His Republican opponent, businessman Larry Hogan, has made a top issue of the dizzying proliferation of taxes during Mr. Brown’s eight-year tenure with Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Republican victories in governors races in liberal-leaning Maryland, Connecticut and Illinois would signal a strong anti-tax tide building against Democrats ahead of the 2016 presidential elections.
In TV ads, debates and on the stump, Mr. Hogan has hammered home that the O’Malley-Brown administration has levied 40 consecutive tax increases that he says “crushed the middle class.”
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The increases hit income tax, sales tax, gas tax, vehicle registration fees, birth and death certificate fees, alcohol tax and bridge and tunnel tolls — to name a few.
“They’ve never met a tax they didn’t like or at least one they didn’t hike,” Mr. Hogan says in one of his TV spots.
Mr. Brown led Mr. Hogan 49 percent to 42 percent in a Baltimore Sun poll this month. In a state with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans, the 7-point spread was too close for comfort for Mr. Brown, who did get a bump in a CBS/New York Times poll that gave him a double-digit lead.
Polls show that voters in these solid Democratic states are on the verge of tax revolts at the ballot box.
Connecticut voters are reeling from at least $1.8 billion in tax increases — the largest in state history — under Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat. Residents are paying higher income taxes, sales taxes, cigarette and alcohol taxes and a yoga studios tax, while tax exemptions for clothes and footwear that cost less than $50 have been eliminated.
After all that, the state nevertheless faces a $1 billion budget shortfall in 2015.
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Mr. Malloy trailed Republican Thomas C. Foley 50 percent to 43 percent in a Rasmussen Reports survey this month. It gave Mr. Foley a double-digit advantage over Mr. Malloy on handling taxes, 50 percent to 37 percent, and government spending, 47 percent to 38 percent.
Mr. Foley has called it “the big squeeze” that higher taxes and rising prices exert on residents suffering from stagnant or falling wages. His pledge to lower taxes and freeze state spending is the cornerstone of his campaign.
“They are rejecting the higher taxes,” said Mark McNulty, communications director for the Foley campaign. “Malloy has proven that his solution for everything is to raise taxes.”
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed the race had tightened to a dead heat.
Mr. Malloy, who beat Mr. Foley by just half a percentage point in the 2010 governor’s race, has promised not to raise taxes again if elected to a second term.
He responded to attacks on his tax policy by slamming Mr. Foley for being a multimillionaire with a 116-foot yacht and his own fighter jets, who managed to owe no federal income taxes in 2011 and 2012.
Mr. Foley released tax return summaries that showed he wrote off business losses those years exceeding his tax debt.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has to fend off questions about whether he will try to raise taxes again in a lame-duck session if he loses his re-election bid to Republican Bruce Rauner.
Mr. Quinn has said he wants to make permanent a temporary increase in the state income tax to 5 percent. The rate is set to drop to 3.75 percent in January. He argues that it would be offset by a proposed $500-per-homeowner property tax rebate.
The temporary tax increases were passed in a lame-duck session just hours before the next General Assembly was sworn in.
Mr. Rauner, who has a slim lead in polls, has campaigned on a promise to get rid of the Mr. Quinn’s 67 percent income tax increase and 45 percent corporate income tax increase. He called the tax hikes irresponsible.
He also pledged to overhaul the tax code and prevent property tax increases that coincide with falling home values.
The tax increases under Mr. Quinn have topped $27 billion since 2011, according to an analysis by Forbes.
The increases included taxes on cigarettes and tobacco, Internet sales taxes and corporate taxes. One of the most painful was the 66 percent increase in personal income tax from a rate of 3 percent to 5 percent.
“We’ve become the worst state in America,” Mr. Rauner said in a recent debate.
Mr. Rauner led Mr. Quinn 48 percent to 47 percent last week in a Rasmussen Reports poll, well within the 3-point margin of error.
The survey showed Mr. Rauner had the advantage over Mr. Quinn when it came to voters’ trust on key issues of taxes (45 percent to 40 percent) and government spending (46 percent to 40 percent).
Mr. Quinn has shot back by attacking Mr. Rauner for being a billionaire and accusing him of planning to cut his own taxes while reducing spending on public schools.
The governor also has insisted that he doesn’t have “secret plans” to make the income tax increase permanent because his 2015 budget proposal included the higher 5 percent tax rate that he says is necessary to maintain the state’s “good schools.”
“I have the courage to tell people what they need to know,” Mr. Quinn said in a debate.
• S.A. Miller can be reached at email@example.com.
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