Gas prices threaten Democrats’ midterm hopes

Prices at the pump continue to be a political liability for Democrats with three weeks to go before the crucial midterm elections.

Gas prices soared following pandemic lockdowns as demand outstripped supply globally, a phenomenon exacerbated by Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. The cost of gasoline ultimately peaked at just above $5 a gallon in June, a record high.

As fears of a recession grew and states waived their gas taxes, the price of gas fell, buoying Democrats’ hopes that the issue would recede into the background even as problems such as the cost of groceries continued to plague consumers.

Gas prices fell for nearly 100 consecutive days, the longest such streak since 2005.

But the trend reversed in September in response to temporary refinery closures followed by an announcement from OPEC+ that it would slash production by 2 million barrels a day.

Even as gas prices declined 4.9% in September, average gasoline prices sat at $3.83 per gallon on Tuesday, nearly 20 cents higher than a month ago, according to the AAA motor group.

The Biden administration is expected to announce plans Wednesday to sell another 15 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Bloomberg reported, a sign of the pressure the White House is feeling to address the problem ahead of Election Day.

The midterm elections were always expected to be tough for Democrats, as the party in power in Washington typically loses seats in Congress. But just a few weeks ago, the landscape looked more promising after voters appeared to be motivated by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Democrats overperformed in special congressional elections in New York, Minnesota, and Nebraska. An anti-abortion rights ballot measure was rejected by voters in heavily Republican Kansas. But now, momentum appears to be shifting back toward the Republicans.

“Democrats, in my view, had a very good August. But they went all in, in many races, on the abortion issue, which is helpful to a certain extent in terms of galvanizing your base, but it’s not the issue,” said veteran Republican strategist Brian O. Walsh.

“If you are still on the fence in this election, economic issues are No. 1,” he said.

A New York Times-Siena College poll released Monday found Republicans leading Democrats 49%-45% in the generic ballot, a shift from last month when Democrats led by 1 percentage point among likely voters, and a new poll from Convention of States Action and the Trafalgar Group found a majority of voters saying “rising gas prices will make them more likely to vote for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections.”

POLLS SHOW GAS PRICES ARE TOP CONCERN FOR MIDTERM VOTERS WITH INCREASE LOOMING

Republicans are reenergized in their efforts to link President Joe Biden to rising prices. In a statement Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the Biden White House is “living in an economic fantasy.”

“Between insisting ‘our economy is strong as hell’ in the face of the worst inflation in 40 years and a looming recession, boasting about gas prices as energy costs continue to soar, and gaslighting about whose policies fueled inflation, Joe Biden’s White House is completely out of touch with most Americans’ everyday economic reality,” he said.

As a way to draw attention to high fuel prices, one conservative advocacy group is rolling back the cost of a gallon of gas to the price it was when Biden took office. Americans for Prosperity has hosted over 130 events at gas stations across the country, offering customers the opportunity to pay $2.38 a gallon for their gas in an effort to “highlight the true cost of Washington’s bad policies and the pain runaway inflation is causing families and small business owners.”

Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said Democrats can’t avoid talking about inflation at a time when Republicans are using it as a campaign cudgel. According to the federal government’s latest inflation report, gas prices increased 18.2% over the last year, contributing to the nearly 40-year record-high inflation rate.

“To fix a problem, you have to first acknowledge it. I think we all need to be honest with ourselves because all of us feel the impacts of inflation,” said Seawright, founder and CEO of political consulting firm Blueprint Strategies.

“However, I do think we need to carve out this very important factor that gets lost. The world is experiencing inflation, not just the United States of America. Joe Biden and the Democrats are not the legislative leaders of the world. They’re in charge of the United States, and everything that can be done, from my lens, we’ve been able to do it,” he said.

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Many Democratic operatives also point to the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill passed by Democrats and signed in August by Biden. Among other things, the legislation allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices by phasing in an annual limit for out-of-pocket costs and puts a $35 cap for a month’s supply of insulin. But the legislation does not provide immediate relief to consumers, as the provisions that could help save money on medical and energy costs have not yet taken effect.

“We don’t so much have a policy problem; we have a messaging problem,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist.

“It’s a tough message — that we did it, but you’re not going to feel it for a while, or you’re going to feel it incrementally. People vote based on emotions,” he said.

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