Inflation might motivate Republicans, but don’t expect it to win them many California elections

A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station, Tuesday, May 10, 2022, in Miami.
(Marta Lavandier / Associated Press)

Wallet-eating gasoline. Soaring grocery prices. Unaffordable housing. Tumbling stocks.

In short: inflation, an election-year plague for Democrats.

But is it in California? Republicans haven’t been competitive here for a long while. Democrats might just cruise through this.

Add to that, however, the likelihood of power blackouts, devastating wildfires and choking smoke this summer — again. Plus, water cutbacks because of the drought. Persistent homelessness.


And no baby formula.

We won’t know the full political impact of the economic hardships, natural disasters and lifestyle aggravations until November.

But historically, inflation has hurt the party in power. That’s currently Democrats — in Washington and Sacramento. And this is the worst inflation in 40 years.

For perspective, the last time inflation was this bad, in 1980, voters ousted Democratic President Carter and installed Republican Ronald Reagan. Republicans captured the U.S. Senate for the first time in 26 years, picking up 12 seats. The GOP gained 34 House seats, but Democrats retained comfortable control.

In California, Republicans picked up six House seats and gained three in the state Assembly.

The playing field is much different this time, however.

Fortunately for President Biden, he isn’t up for reelection. Even in deep-blue California, the Democrat isn’t all that popular: 48% job approval and 49% disapproval among likely voters, according to a poll published last week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla are on the ballot, but they’re virtual shoo-ins.


The one statewide contest in which inflation and unchecked spending could help a Republican is in the race for controller. Lanhee Chen, a Stanford public policy instructor and former Mitt Romney campaign advisor, has an outside chance of becoming the first Republican to win a statewide office since 2006.

A handful of congressional races also could be swayed by inflation. So could any bond proposals on the ballot.

“Inflation is the one issue that impacts almost everybody,” says Republican consultant Dave Gilliard. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re on minimum wage or one of the wealthiest people in the country.

The governor’s proposal spans both long-term investments and immediate cash rebates, largely made possible by a towering $97.5-billion tax surplus through next summer.

May 13, 2022

“I do think it will be the dominant issue.”

“High inflation always has an impact on elections,” says Democratic strategist Garry South. “But it’s not something politicians can do much about.”

Well, there actually is something they can do: Stop doling out big economic stimulus packages — trillions from the feds and billions from the state. It heats inflation.

“No doubt, pumping that much money into the economy had an inflationary effect,” South says. “But on the other side, do you want the economy to go into a recession? It’s a Hobson’s choice. We’re paying the price.”


He adds that “sending out billions of dollars to help motorists pay for gasoline might even raise gas prices….

“But I think the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade is going to have a bigger political impact than inflation. It will have a demonstrable effect in California.”

Gilliard says that “November is coming down to Democrats talking about abortion and guns and Republicans talking about inflation and the border.”

But David Townsend, a strategist for moderate Democrats, says that inflation “transcends everything. Roe vs. Wade, Ukraine, Trump craziness — all that takes a back seat when people are worried about money and the cost of things.”

The PPIC poll produced data that should disturb the party in power.

“It’s bad news for the Democrats,” says PPIC president and pollster Mark Baldassare. “Financial worry is a factor that leads people to want change.”

Likely voters were asked what they thought was the most important issue facing California. No. 1, by far, was “jobs, the economy and inflation.” That was the response of 24%.


No. 2 with 13% was “housing costs and availability,” partly a derivative of inflation. Then came homelessness with 11%.

Republicans were more concerned about inflation than Democrats. But it was an even bigger worry among independents — 32% called it the state’s most important problem.

“Independents are thinking more like Republicans,” says GOP consultant Matt Rexroad.

If so, that could shift election dynamics in California.

Independents in recent years have leaned Democratic in their voting. Officially listed as No Party Preference, their registration numbers are slightly less than those of Republicans, who are outnumbered nearly 2 to 1 by Democrats.

The PPIC poll found independents thinking more like Republicans on things besides inflation. They believe California is moving “in the wrong direction,” And they disapprove of the way both Biden and the state Legislature are handling their jobs.

But a plurality of independents said they intend to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate. Overall, 55% of likely voters said they’ll support a Democrat in House races; only 35% plan to back a Republican.

The poll found, however, that Republicans are more eager to vote than Democrats and independents. Half of GOP voters are “very” or “extremely” enthusiastic about casting ballots in House elections. Only a third of Democrats and independents are.


“Inflation will affect turnout for Republicans,” Baldassare says. “They’re upset about the economy….

“The biggest thing for me in the poll is that it shows an enthusiasm gap. That’s bad news for Democrats.”

But Republicans can’t win with just enthusiasm. In most communities, they need votes from Democrats and independents. And Californians haven’t been willing to accept the GOP as an alternative to one-party rule.

That’s unlikely to change even with painful inflation, record gas prices and inexcusable homelessness. Republicans still oppose abortion rights and gun control.