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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 11: Who Will Get the Blame in California For High Gas Prices?

Looking at two entirely different phenomena that happen to be converging at the gas pumps in the nation’s largest state, I wrote up an analysis for New York:

In most of the country, the likelihood that the president’s new fight with Iran will boost gas prices just as voters start thinking about the November midterm elections is some additional grief already embattled Republican candidates could really do without. It could be a real pocketbook problem, as CNN reports:

“Dan Eberhart, CEO of oilfield services company Canary LLC, drew a direct connection: ‘Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal will support higher oil prices.'”

“Crude topped $70 a barrel this week for the first time in nearly four years. Hours before Trump’s announcement, federal government forecasters raised their estimate for 2018 oil prices by 10.5% to an average of $65.58 a barrel….

“Gasoline prices, which generally follow oil prices, have jumped to a national average of $2.81 a gallon, according to AAA. A gallon of gas went for $2.34 a year ago. The typical family will spend about $200 more this summer driving season, according to the Oil Price Information Service.”

But there’s a wrinkle in the potential fallout from higher gas taxes in California, where prices are already topping $4 per gallon in some locales. Prices were already rising significantly in the state thanks to a gas tax increase imposed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2017. The biggest increase took effect last November, but it coincided with a point in which gas stations in the state switch to a less expensive “winter blend” of fuels as smog abates. So the full weight of the tax increase is just now being felt, even as world oil and domestic gas prices are going up for various reasons, including Trump playing with fire in the Middle East.

As it happens, California voters are going to be dealing with a November ballot initiative avidly backed by the state’s Republicans, which would repeal the gas tax increase and require voter approval of future fuel tax hikes. Indeed, the struggling California GOP is hoping this measure will goose “base” turnout while convincing some swing voters that Democratic control of Sacramento is too expensive.

So that sets up an interesting situation for voters inclined to lash out at politicians for making a tank of gas cost significantly more: Do they blame Democrats for the gas tax increase or Republicans for being the party of a president who’s fecklessly throwing his weight around in the world’s most dangerous region?

You’d have to guess that if supporters of the gas tax repeal kick out the jams on advertising the easier connection between higher gas prices and higher taxes would be the easier sell. On the other hand, Democrats (and the business groups that supported the gas tax increase) will run ads making it clear that without the higher gas tax the long-overdue road and bridge repairs that are finally under way around the state will come to an abrupt halt. So easing gas prices by repealing the new taxes will come at its own price, particularly for motorists sick of potholes and traffic congestion. But punishing the GOP for Trump’s dumb foreign policies is what California’s Democratic-leaning electorate is inclined to do anyway.

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