Weeks of falling gas prices are dulling what had previously been a sharp Republican weapon, giving Democrats another glimmer of hope ahead of the midterm elections.
Months ago, sky-high gas prices were a major reason why Democrats’ prospects looked bleak.
But as candidates hit the homestretch ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms, the lower gas prices are giving reasons for Democrats to think they can be more competitive.
“It takes a lot of the effectiveness out of a cudgel when people aren’t seeing and feeling it as much,” Democratic strategist Eddie Vale said of gas prices.
Since hitting a June peak of $5.02 on average across the country, U.S. gasoline prices have fallen by $1.28 and are averaging about $3.74 per gallon as of Friday.
That’s still relatively high and up about 56 cents from a year ago. It’s about $1.18 higher compared to the same day in 2019, prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the prices are going in a better direction for consumers and the party in power.
Republicans have sought to make the election about inflation — with gas prices being a heavy target. But some polls suggest voters are now looking at other issues.
In a recent poll from Marist, fewer Americans cited inflation as their top voting issue than in a previous poll, indicating that at least some focus is shifting onto other topics.
While Marist found that 30 percent of Americans still consider inflation to be their top voting issue, that number is down from 37 percent of respondents who said the same in July.
The Marist poll also found the number of those surveyed who said abortion was their top issue was growing, from 18 percent in July to 22 percent in September.
Democrats have zeroed in on abortion rights as a key midterm issue ever since the Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade decision in June. The party has won two special House elections since the court’s decision amid some evidence that more women are registering to vote.
The Cook Political Report also cited lower gas prices as the second-biggest reason why Democrats appear in a better political position than they were a few months ago, writing that the fall is “taking some bite out of Republicans’ ‘Biden-flation’ message.”
To be sure, Democrats still face some serious hurdles.
Historically, the party that holds the presidency has lost congressional seats during midterm elections. And while President Biden’s approval ratings have started to rise in some polls, more than 50 percent in several recent polls say they disapprove of his policies.
Low approval ratings for a president are generally a serious drag on lawmakers in that president’s party.
Still, while Democrats remain the underdog to hold on to the House majority, they are starting to feel better about cutting into their potential losses in the lower chamber.
And the party is feeling much better about retaining its Senate majority as candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin show signs of strength.
The Supreme Court’s abortion decision is seen as the biggest reason why the future looks brighter for Democrats, and why the party pulled off key wins in those special House elections in New York and Alaska last month.
But Vale said the gasoline price drop is also having significant political impacts.
“It’s something that people feel every two days, five days, seven days depending on how long your commute is,” he said. “Even if you’re not filling up your tank, you’re driving by like 10 gas stations with the signs every day, so it’s very front-of-mind.”
Republicans argue that they still have the upper hand on the issue given where prices stand.
“Voters still care that gas prices are through the roof,” said Michael McAdams, communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s campaign arm for House races.
“It’s undeniable that the most important issue for every voter – doesn’t matter where you live whether it’s in Oregon or Florida — [is] the rising cost of everything,” McAdams said.
GOP strategist Doug Heye similarly said in a statement that Republican candidates should continue to hammer their Democratic opponents on gasoline prices and inflation more broadly.
“Even as [prices] have fallen and Democrats try to take credit, that money — or the money families spend on eggs, ground beef and vegetables, or housing — is not going back in their pockets,” Heye said in an email.
“This is still the #1 issue for Republicans and Independents. GOP candidates should spend all day every day reminding voters of those things,” he added.
In their own messaging on the issue, Vale said that Democrats need to strike a balance between acknowledging that the country is still grappling with inflation and trying to take credit for downward price trends.
“Since you’re seeing a lot of the inflation soften or even decrease in some areas, you can take credit broadly speaking,” he said.