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High gas prices complicate Democrats’ hopes of picking up US House seats in California

<i>Rich Pedroncelli/AP</i><br/>State Assemblyman Rudy Salas
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
State Assemblyman Rudy Salas

By Maeve Reston, CNN

It has been a year of difficult choices for families in California’s 22nd Congressional District — a place Democrats have long eyed as one of their top pickup opportunities as they look to hold onto the US House in this fall’s midterms. But as the Golden State contends with the highest gas prices in the nation heading next Tuesday’s primaries, the financial pain felt by families is overshadowing every other issue.

Yessenia Maldonado, a 46-year-old dental assistant and single mom of six, makes weekly calculations of what she must give up in exchange for one extra gallon of gas. “Am I going to buy the milk for my kids or am I going to buy the gas to go to work? Because it’s kind of the same price,” she said during a recent grocery trip to Costco, adding that she now limits her drives to the essential trips.

Feliciano Diaz, a-45-year-old truck driver, said he has scaled back on activities for his 14-year-old and a 10-year-old, like guitar lessons, and is now also halting long-planned home projects “because we don’t know what’s happening” and how long the gas price spike will last.

Mary Conrad, 69, resorted to applying for food stamps as she tries to get by on her Social Security and disability checks. “There’s just not enough money, so I’m charging my credit cards to eat,” Conrad said as she set out on a shopping trip on a recent Sunday. “I’m making the payments, but the balances keep going up.”

All three said they don’t see anything happening in Washington to address their concerns. The frustration with the party in power is palpable, a foreboding sign for Democrats in districts like this one where the party had hoped their recruit, state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, could unseat GOP Rep. David Valadao, who won his seat back in 2020 at the same time President Joe Biden was carrying it after losing it in 2018.

When the nonpartisan redistricting commission drew its final lines for the Golden State last year, Democrats viewed California as a treasure trove of opportunities with as many as eight to 10 competitive House races up and down the state. The new 22nd District topped that list after the new lines created a tougher path for Valadao by removing some Republican portions of the district.

To Democratic strategists, Valadao initially looked even more vulnerable because he had voted to impeach former President Donald Trump after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, which angered some GOP voters. But out of the six House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and are running for reelection, Valadao is the only one the former President has not yet endorsed against.

The first test of Valadao’s strength within his own party will come in Tuesday’s primary, which will be determined by California’s “jungle primary” rules where the top-two finishers advance to the November election regardless of party. He’s being challenged on his right flank by former Fresno City Council member Chris Mathys, who took on the congressman because of his impeachment vote. Mathys sued the state after it rejected his request to be identified as a “Trump Conservative/Businessman” on the ballot.

Democrats will be closely watching to see how Salas finishes in the primary as they try to determine whether their party’s voters are motivated to cast ballots in this sour economic climate.

With inflation showing no signs of abating — and gas prices in the state topping an average of $6.15 per gallon on Memorial Day — Democrats’ success increasingly hinges on the ability of candidates like Salas, who has been one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top recruits, to show frustrated voters that they understand the economic pain and are trying to address it.

Gas tax politics dominate congressional races

Democrats’ hopes of winning the 22nd District rest on voters like Conrad and Diaz, who both said they lean left but see few solutions from the party to address inflation.

“There’s a lot of talk about doing things, but it’s not getting done,” Conrad said.

“I want to look for another option,” said Diaz, who said he is also troubled by the level of financial assistance that the US has sent to Ukraine at a time when American families are struggling with basic costs. “I understand that we have to help other countries like Ukraine, but also we need the government to put more attention on our own problems like inflation.”

Maldonado says she’s essentially tuned out politics because she doesn’t trust either side to help. “Everybody says one thing, but then they end up doing nothing at all or end up doing something different,” she said.

As the son of a field crew supervisor who earned extra money for his school clothes by picking grapes and kiwifruit as a kid when one of his dad’s workers didn’t show up, Salas seemed particularly well suited to speak to these voters as he leans in to his working-class roots.

He won his Assembly races in part by fashioning himself as a moderate, independent voice for the Central Valley. His key proof point was his break with Democrats in April 2017 when he voted against raising the state’s gasoline excise tax, a measure that was part of a broader transportation package to dedicate more money to road repairs and other projects.

With Salas’ defection, Democrats scrambled to meet the minimum two-thirds margin needed to pass the measure. Angry party leaders stripped Salas of his chairmanship on the Assembly’s Business and Professions Committee, which oversees licensing and certain consumer regulations like product labeling.

“I knew they were going to punish me,” Salas told CNN. But he said he kept thinking of people on fixed incomes who didn’t have the extra margin to pay more for gas. “I had direct conversations with the governor at the time too — and I was just telling him, ‘Look, this plan does nothing for people in the Valley that have to drive to do everything. We have to drive to drop our kids off at school. We have to drive to get to a grocery store. For us, we have no option but to drive.'”

Salas recalled how the vote created havoc on the Assembly floor. But later, he said, “I had people just stop by the office, come by just wanting to shake my hand — all parties, Democrats, Republicans, independents.”

As much as that moment has figured in Salas’ political biography, his Republican critics are looking to poke holes in his argument. They point to several Republican-driven votes that Salas missed earlier this year that were aimed at suspending California’s gas excise tax for six months. It is the highest in the country at 51-cents-per-gallon and slated to rise automatically on July 1.

Democrats have resisted calls to suspend it, arguing that the savings from slashing it wouldn’t necessarily be passed on to consumers — as they say that help should come in other forms like tax refunds through Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $18 billion “inflation relief package.”

While Valadao has not been particularly visible on the campaign trail, he is seeking political advantage on the issue of gas prices — spearheading letters to Newsom from Republicans in California’s congressional delegation urging him to suspend the gas tax. A recent Valadao campaign ad charges that Biden’s policies are “costing us more for gas and groceries,” and says the congressman is “leading the fight to suspend the gas tax so families can keep more of what they earn.”

Valadao’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests from CNN for an interview to discuss his plans to address both gas prices and inflation.

But Robert Jones, an adviser to Valadao, took aim at the recent votes that Salas missed, charging that he has not been “honest with the voters about where he really is” on that issue.

“He has one vote in the distant past to point to and every other time he had a chance (to suspend the gas tax) he did not have the courage to do it on the floor in Sacramento,” Jones said. “The reason voters have supported David (Valadao) throughout the years — and what they’re looking for in a representative — is somebody who’s willing to stand up to their party and take the tough voters. Rudy has no history of that. When tough votes come around, Rudy sticks his finger in the air and changes his vote in the dead of night. That’s not leadership.”

Salas’ campaign manager Abby Olmstead pushed back on that characterization. “Rudy Salas was the only Democrat who voted against increasing the gas tax when it was originally proposed,” she said. She pointed to his vote in the Assembly last week to bring up a bill that would have suspended the gas tax for one year. (At the time the measure failed last Wednesday, Salas was recorded as not voting, but he later amended his vote to register his support for the maneuver as permitted by the Assembly’s rules).

Keeping Washington at a distance

As Democrats nationally struggle to find the right message on inflation and gas prices, Salas trades sticker shock stories with people he meets as he drives his Ford F-150 truck around his agricultural and predominantly Latino district, often noting how much it cost him to fill up his tank at Costco and highlighting policies like the cost of living adjustments that he has proposed in the Assembly.

At a time when other Democrats, including Newsom, have talked about finding pathways to phase out oil extraction in places like Kern County — a major driver of the economy in the Central Valley and jobs in the 22nd District — Salas also prides himself on defending the six-figure positions tied to the industry. He often takes California lawmakers on tours to see the local oil derricks that dot city parks here, as well as to a bluff overlooking the massive Kern River Oil Field. (Kern County contains the majority of active wells in the state).

Salas says he challenges fellow Democrats who want to phase out that drilling by asking them to think about the alternatives, including bringing oil in by tanker from overseas from countries with far less environmental regulation.

“You want me to put all these people out of a job, for something that actually is worse for the environment? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Salas said.

While he has promised to focus on issues like expanding health care and finding compromise on immigration in Congress, Salas’ pitch to voters is hyper-local — projects they “can see and touch” from his time on the Bakersfield City Council and in the Assembly.

That includes some of the most basic tasks that lured him into politics — like getting dirt sidewalks paved and adding streetlights and playground equipment to the areas where he grew up, but also his efforts to help save a local hospital that was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and obtaining funding for research into valley fever, a disease that is caused by the inhalation of fungal spores that grow in the soil and can be lifted into the air by wind and other disturbances.

A new six-figure ad buy to bolster Salas from House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC tied to House leadership, illustrates that local focus, highlighting his advocacy for higher teacher pay and access to clean drinking water, which has been a major problem in this region.

When asked which of the President’s accomplishments, or what aspects of the Biden agenda, he plans to focus on in his campaign, Salas replied, “I’m sure we’ll find them. We’re just focused on the issues here locally.”

“People want somebody that they can talk to, that understands what they’re going through,” he said.

And while that strategy may make midterm campaigns like Salas’ feel more like a mayoral race than a congressional contest, keeping Washington at a distance may be the safest play this year for Democrats trying to distance themselves from Biden’s low approval ratings.

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