As midterm elections loom, chances of victory hinge on health of economy
PITTSBURGH — With inflation the highest it's been since the early 1980s and Americans feeling the pain of a downtrodden economy, Democrats in Pennsylvania — a state with two of the most high-profile races in the country — are hoping to convince voters that they should be an exception to an otherwise brutal midterm election cycle.
In hotly contested races that could decide control of the U.S. Senate and whether Republicans get control of a their own government trifecta in Harrisburg, economic issues could be at the forefront — whether the candidates like it or not, national political and economic analysts say. Hurting financially, many Americans are telling pollsters they feel worse off than they've been in years, are struggling to make ends meet, and are feeling more and more hopeless about their political leaders.
Democratic insiders in Pennsylvania told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past week that they know the road will be tough — compounded, too, by the cyclical disadvantage of the political party in power entering a midterm election. But they insist that national pundits have it wrong about the extent of the damage coming this November, and that they can mount the kind of candidacies that are damage-proof to the current economic conditions.
Republicans, meanwhile, are preparing to spend massive amounts of money in an effort to tie President Joe Biden's economic record to U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman and gubernatorial contender Josh Shapiro, both Democrats. It's designed to convince voters that Democratic policies are to blame and not global headwinds, and that their candidates — cardiothoracic surgeon and TV celebrity Mehmet Oz for Senate and state Sen. Doug Mastriano for governor — will stand up for Pennsylvania families.
Charlie Cook, one of the leading political analysts and election forecasters in the nation, founder of Cook Political Report and former resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, said experts know where the wind is headed — against Democrats — and that it's going to be pretty heavy.
The president's job approval rating is tied for the lowest of any elected president in post-war history, Cook noted, and the "wrong track" number — a metric in polls used by analysts to determine the percentage of people who think the country is headed in the wrong direction — is growing.
"All these macro factors would say that this thing's going to be somewhere between horrific and biblical," Cook said, "but there are technical factors that may keep it down to just an ugly one for Democrats."
In an interview this past week with The Associated Press, Biden blamed gas prices for the country's pessimism about the economy, acknowledging that costs are rising for Americans to put food on their table and gas in their vehicles. Experts say he has little hope of bringing down prices before November or doing anything substantial to combat inflation, which the White House says has been caused, partly, by the fallout of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Strategists with the state Democratic Party acknowledge that voters are worried about rising costs, but insist that candidates also matter. Shapiro and Fetterman have proven they can connect with voters and outline clear economic visions, a party official said.
But the GOP's efforts — tying Democrats to the economy — have already begun on the airwaves in Pennsylvania. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate GOP, put out an ad late last week that notes rising gas prices under Biden, plays a clip of Fetterman saying he's "proud to run on the same ticket as a Joe Biden" and concludes: "You're out of gas. Biden's out of time. Fetterman's out of the question."
The Fetterman campaign isn't planning to shy away from the conversation about inflation and the economy, officials say. Campaign insiders believe Fetterman's candidacy is the right kind of contrast to that of a TV celebrity, and that he can better relate to the pain that people are feeling.
In a recent op-ed in the Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown, Fetterman wrote that Oz doesn't feel the change in price when he's filling up his tank — and that he's "not connected to the struggles that Pennsylvanians are facing every day." Oz is a millionaire, Fetterman said — while he drives a Dodge Ram and shops at Giant Eagle.
Fetterman also reiterated his calls to suspend the federal gas tax (18.4 cents per gallon), produce and invest more in American oil and make more things here at home so prices don't spike every time there's a problem overseas.
Oz spokeswoman Brittany Yanick said Oz knows Pennsylvanians are hurting from the president's "radical agenda" and that it should take the blame for the supply chain crisis, record inflation and a spike in gas prices. Oz will fight to stop wasteful spending and lower taxes on small businesses, Ms. Yanick said.
"When elected to the Senate, Dr. Oz will stand up against Biden's war on American energy and work to reduce burdensome regulations that make it harder for American businesses to compete," Ms. Yanick said.
Republicans who back Oz will seek to convince voters that Biden's spending — on the American Rescue Plan, for one, which Fetterman has said he'd have voted for — led to inflation.
In private, GOP officials tout quotes from people like Steven Rattner, a former Obama adviser who said the U.S. is "paying the price for having overstimulated this economy during the pandemic and putting too much money into people's pockets, which created a lot of this inflation."
"Thanks to Joe Biden and the Senate Democrats' inflationary spending bills, our economy is failing," U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the NRSC, said in a statement to the Post-Gazette. Fetterman would be the "51st vote" for Biden's agenda, he added.
Asked about Fetterman's argument that Oz is not connected to the struggles of everyday Pennsylvanians, Cook said it's a plausible argument to make, but to an extent, federal candidates in the Democratic Party have to carry the president on their backs.
"Sure, you go with the best argument you've got," Cook said. "But Fetterman has a blue jersey on, the same color jersey that President Biden has on, whether he wants to or not — and whether it's made by Carhartt or not."
'Let voters know'
Mike Mikus, a prominent local Democratic strategist who has worked with numerous campaigns in recent years, said candidates can't tell voters something they don't believe. They have to say they understand what Pennsylvanians are feeling or else risk looking out of touch by touting good parts of the economy, Mikus said. Offer proposals that sound realistic, he cautions candidates — even if the president's approval rating is a concern.
"What I tell candidates, regardless of the president or whoever the perceived leader is and their popularity, you have to run a race that fits the district," Mikus said. "That means when you agree with the president on something, you let voters know. When you disagree with the president, you let voters know."
Mikus cited Shapiro's policy plans as an effective means of messaging. Shapiro, Pennsylvania's sitting attorney general, touts a plan that includes eliminating the cell phone tax, giving every driver an immediate $250 gas tax rebate for each car they own and raising the maximum rebate, from $650 to $1000, for the homeowners and renters — mostly seniors — who take advantage of the property tax rebate program.
Asked what he'd tell voters who feel that Democrats are to blame for why they feel worse off now than four years ago, Shapiro, in a statement passed along by his campaign, said he hears the pain that people are feeling every day, whether he's in Pittsburgh or in rural Butler County. They deserve a "governor who will find solutions and make their lives better," he said.
"As Governor, I'm going to cut taxes, create good paying jobs, and attract new businesses to Pennsylvania. I'll work with Republicans and Democrats to get that done — and I'll stand up to anyone who tries to stop us from helping Pennsylvanians," Shapiro said.
A spokesperson for Mastriano's campaign told the Post-Gazette that Shapiro is an ideological replica of Gov. Tom Wolf and Biden, and "if you love inflation, including high gas prices, you'll love" the attorney general.
Mastriano will unleash energy suppliers in Pennsylvania so they can expand their refinery and drilling operations and lower the tax burden on Pennsylvanians by "exploring ways to eliminate property taxes, slash the gas tax, and reduce the corporate net income tax rate, and unshackle Pennsylvania's private sector by establishing strike force teams at each state agency with the goal of cutting statewide regulations by at least 55,000 in the first year," the spokesperson's statement read.
From the top, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party has worked to defend Biden's economic record and pin some of the blame on Republicans in Washington and Harrisburg who are voting against Democratic proposals. A recent memo by the party noted that unemployment in Pennsylvania is down, the job market is strong, incomes are rising and the country is "in a good position to fight inflation."
Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst and senior editor at Inside Elections who was the longtime publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, said one tactic Democrats might use will be to change the subject to something else reasonably compelling. It might be hard to find something that hits as hard as the economy, though, he added.
Democrats could try to localize their contests, hone in on their personal strengths and try to portray their Republican opponents as "out of touch," Rothenberg said.
Still, "you have to overcome the burden of inflation," Rothenberg said, which is difficult.
"You can try to shift the blame on the oil companies or Vladimir Putin. I'm skeptical about that working. I just think — and I've been doing this long enough — the president is seen as getting the blame," Rothenberg said.
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