TOLEDO, Ohio — Hillary Clinton’s supporters in Ohio say new revelations about Donald Trump’s tax avoidance can resuscitate her campaign in this longtime bellwether state where she is trailing her Republican rival.
And for Clinton, who landed in the Democratic-leaning city of Toledo Monday afternoon — her first visit to Ohio since Labor Day — it was a fortuitous backdrop for a populist speech in which she launched her first attack on Trump as a benefactor of the rigged system he rails against.
“The whole story tells us everything we need to know about how Trump does business,” Clinton told a crowd of about 1,100 supporters packed into the city’s main rail station. It was the first time Clinton responded directly to a New York Times story published over the weekend, which revealed that Trump lost close to $1 billion in 1995 and offset the massive loss by apparently not paying taxes for the following 18 years. His surrogates over the weekend argued Trump was a “genius” and the only candidate who truly understood the country’s complicated tax laws in order to reform them.
But Clinton on Monday used the new report to tell blue-collar workers and union members in Ohio, many of them still recovering from the 2008 housing crisis, that Trump simply wasn’t looking out for people like them.
“After he made all those bad bets and lost all that money, he didn’t lift a finger to help and to protect his employees, or all the small businesses and contractors he’d hired, or the people of Atlantic City,” Clinton said, adding that his tax proposals call for increases on middle class families.
It’s a message Democrats on the ground here said they expect will help erase Trump’s current lead — the latest Real Clear Politics polling average puts Trump 1.8 points ahead of the Democratic nominee — and shift the state to Clinton’s column.
Ohio is a state where Democrats have long seen the issue of taxes as a vote driver. In 2012, President Obama’s campaign ran an ad here dinging Romney for releasing just one year of tax returns — and paying just 14.1 percent of taxes in 2011. “Maybe instead of attacking others on taxes, Romney should come clean on his,” the ad said. Obama won Ohio that year, by three points, boosted, in the end, by his passage of the auto bailout. (At her second rally of the day, in Akron, Clinton also underscored her support for saving the auto industry.)
Democrats said they expect the revelation that Trump has paid nothing in federal income taxes to have a similar effect this year as the Obama ads ripping Romney on taxes. “In the next week or so you’re going to see some shifting in the polls,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan predicted in an interview. And Clinton’s operatives on the ground — she has 61 offices statewide — said they still expect to win the state despite trailing in the polls.
Ohio is crucial to Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes. In Clinton’s campaign, however, Ohio is not considered a “must-win” state.
“We need reinvestment in Ohio, whether it’s roads or bridges. It would be much easier to make those kinds of investments if guys like Trump paid their fair share of taxes,” Ryan said. “It’s very much equivalent to what they did to Mitt Romney in 2012.”
Local labor leaders said they expected the issue to turn off voters in Ohio. “Anyone that earns a living has to pay taxes,” said Michael Gillis, a spokesman for the Ohio chapter of the AFL-CIO.
“Why should the steelworker in Cleveland, or the auto worker in Toledo have to pay taxes and Donald Trump doesn’t?” The AFL-CIO is a powerful organizing agent here — it’s 1,500 local unions plan to distribute 1.5 million pieces of mail and make 1.3 million phone calls for Clinton between now and Election Day, Gillis said.
Clinton’s on-the-ground ripping of Trump on Monday, however, is more personal than how Obama attacked Romney on taxes. Obama’s campaign used Romney’s tax returns to make a broader argument about the economy and the need to change the tax code — they hammered at the idea that a millionaire businessman was paying a lower tax rate than his assistant. Clinton, however, is using Trump’s lone public tax return to discredit him personally.
In her first speech of the day on Monday, Clinton painted Trump as a lousy businessman who profited at the expense of those who worked for him. “They all got hammered, while he was busy with his accountants trying to figure out how he could keep living like a billionaire,” she said. “Trump was taking from America with both hands and leaving the rest of us with the bill.”
In Akron, she asked: “Who loses money on casinos?”
“Yesterday, his campaign was bragging that it makes him a genius,” Clinton added. “What kind of genius loses a billion dollars in a single year?”
The new line of attack on Trump comes as Clinton appears to be putting a renewed focus on Ohio after virtually ignoring it for the critical month of September. She made two campaign stops Monday — in recent weeks, Clinton has been making just one public campaign stop per day. And Bill Clinton was scheduled to begin his bus tour across the Eastern Ohio and the Mahoning Valley on Tuesday — once one of the largest steel producers in the country that has lost thousands of jobs to Chinese manufacturers.
Her reappearance here was also an opportunity to try and win over skeptical voters who may have been attracted to Trump’s bashing of NAFTA — Clinton framed herself as the only candidate dedicated to “protecting taxpayers, consumers, small business and workers.”
She blasted the Obama-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership for favoring large corporations, a deal she once supported. “It’s just one reason why I oppose TPP now, I’ll oppose it after the election, and I’ll oppose it as President — because it’s one sided and unfair for American workers,” she said.
Some Democrats, however, were skeptical of making any bets after underestimating Trump’s appeal for too long.
“He lost a billion dollars during a boom,” said David Detris, chairman of the Democratic party in Mahoning County, which has voted Democratic since Richard Nixon. “But anything I thought I knew about politics has been set on its head.”
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