High gas prices roil House races

High gasoline prices have become a political wild card in California, where several tight races are pivotal to Democrats’ slim hopes of winning back control of the House.

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Gas prices are always higher in California, but lately they’re bad even by Golden State standards, soaring a half-dollar in one week to average $4.67-per-gallon on Oct. 9.

Republicans have sought political mileage from pump prices, and there is more to come. Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who faces a challenge from Democrat Raul Ruiz, is running an ad that begins with shots of gas price signs and then cuts to the eight-term congresswoman filling up an SUV.

“These gas prices are outrageous. They have more than doubled in the past four years, and working families are hurting the most. This has to change,” she says.

Bono Mack adds that more alternative energy and domestic drilling are needed, and calls for construction of the Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline, a project that the White House is still reviewing.

“I would anticipate we’ll be hitting this same theme in . . . ads coming out over the next three weeks,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats hope to tailor their national narrative on energy prices, which stars “Big Oil” and Wall Street speculators as the bad guys, into damaging attacks against GOP incumbents there.

On Thursday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) sent California reporters releases on gas prices targeting four GOP incumbents in competitive races: Reps. Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham, Brian Bilbray and Bono Mack.

“As Gas Prices Surge to Record Highs in California, Congressman Lungren Stands with Big Oil companies instead,” the DCCC release on Lungren states.

It notes his vote to preserve oil industry tax breaks, and campaign contributions he receives from oil companies.

In order to win back the House, Democrats must defeat a few incumbents in California.

But Democrats have to worry about defending some seats in the state, including Reps. John Garamendi, Jerry McNerney, and Lois Capps. On Thursday, Capps called for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) probe of the price spike.

Their seats are listed as “lean Democratic” in The Hill’s race ratings.

The soaring prices have followed problems at multiple refineries in California, including a recent power outage at an Exxon facility that curbed output, but some lawmakers say market manipulation may be a factor.

The Exxon refinery has resumed normal output, and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last weekend ordered a waiver allowing early transition to sale of winter-blend gasoline in the state.

California gas prices have begun receding, dropping by several cents over the last few days to average $4.63-per-gallon on Saturday, according to AAA.

The price spikes have captured the attention of the state’s political class, including lawmakers who are not vulnerable in their upcoming elections. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D) have, like Capps, both called for an FTC probe of the price spikes.

Political experts say the massive state, with its highly varied geography and demographics, resists any blanket assumptions about how prices will affect incumbents and challengers.

“The one generalization you can make about California is that you cannot generalize about California,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

He points out that Republicans face very different political dynamics in different parts of the state when it comes to energy politics and policy.

On the coast, “even Republicans have to be very careful about using the ‘D’ word,” Pitney said, referring to drilling.

But the dynamic changes in more conservative areas in the state’s interior. “You go inland it is very different kind of territory,” he said.

In the race for Capps’ coastal district north of Los Angeles, GOP challenger Abel Maldonado plans to try and transform the price spikes into a weapon against her, a Maldonado spokesman said, arguing the longtime incumbent has not tackled the issue.

“This is something that will be a key issue in the next 27 days,” spokesman Kurt Bardella said. The challenger’s campaign alleges Capps has supported federal regulations that have boosted prices.

The Maldonado campaign is hitting Capps with a press release Friday that seeks to tether her to the failed, federally-backed solar company Solyndra, stating Capps “chooses Solyndra over Keystone” as prices are high in California. Critics of the pipeline say it won’t help lower prices.

The challenger, who is the state’s former lieutenant governor, backs the pipeline and expanded U.S. drilling, Bardella said. But at the same time, Maldonado opposes drilling off California’s coast, he said.

Gas prices are also playing a role in the race for Lungren’s central California seat.

The incumbent has slammed Democratic challenger Ami Bera for his 2010 comments that appeared to back increased gas taxes as a way to curb consumption, which Bera called “worth exploring.”

Bera now says he is opposed to an increase in the gas tax and has never backed the idea, according to The Sacramento Bee.

University of California-Berkeley politics expert Bruce Cain says that high prices feed into each party’s narrative.

Democrats see a case of greedy companies manipulating markets while Republicans blame Democrats for doing too little to expand fossil energy supplies, he notes.

The absence of a competitive presidential contest in the state will affect how the dueling narratives play out, Cain said.

With President Obama sure to take the state’s electoral votes, neither presidential campaign is really competing there, so California is somewhat insulated from the thrust-and-parry over energy prices in the Obama-Mitt Romney race. However, a recent poll shows Obama’s lead has slipped from 22 points to 14.

“This is where money might matter. Outside spending in an orphan state like California (i.e. no Presidential race to speak of) can hammer home charges and a message at the last minute that could tip a close race,” said Cain, a political science professor, in an email.

Other experts also say that spending decisions in the final stretch by super PACs could prove key in some races.

“I think either spin – big company manipulation or Democrats sitting on their hands while people suffer – could work if the ads are effectively done and are not countered on the other side,” Cain said.

What’s certain is that the topic is unavoidable in the Golden State.

Bill Whalen, who was a speechwriter for former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), notes that California is an “automobile society.” Voters take stock of the pump prices.

“When they see $3 turn into $4 and $4 turn into $5, it makes people mad, and they tend to take out their frustration on political candidates,” said Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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