Inflation fears pressure Democrats in Virginia House races. Could they be a bellwether?

Republicans are hoping to flip three bellwether congressional races in Virginia.

  • The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting three Virginia Democratic incumbents this midterm cycle.
  • The nation’s inflation crisis could help the Republican Party's chances to retake the House.
  • Soaring food and gas prices have led voters to sour on President Joe Biden and Democrats.

ORANGE, Va. – Lora Dotson, a resident of Locust Grove, Virginia, blames Democrats for inflation and the economic pain Virginians are facing. 

"I think that the gas issue is on voters' mind the most because it's hitting everybody at home right now in their pockets," Dotson said. 

And it's not just gas that people are upset over.

"I think this situation with the formula for the babies is hitting a lot of women hard right now," she added, referring to a national shortage of baby formula. "When you gotta go search for food to feed your child, it's bad, when your country can't even help you with stuff like that."

Dotson is now backing Yesli Vega, a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisor, in the GOP primary for Virginia's 7th Congressional District on Tuesday.

Vega is one of six Republicans vying for the nomination, along with Bryce Reeves, Derrick Anderson, Crystal Vanuch, David Ross and Gina Ciarcia. Whoever wins will take on Democratic incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger in the general election.

And thoseRepublicans are betting that Democrats will face backlash from voters across the nation this year, angry over higher costs of living, exhausted from the coronavirus pandemic and a looming recession.

"We're paying these outrageous prices," Dotson said. "It's hurting everything. It's hurting the whole economy."

The 7th District is not the only race Republicans are looking to flip during this year's midterm elections. 

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Who is Abigail Spanberger? The incumbent Democrat in Virginia's 7th Congressional District

The National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting three Virginia Democratic incumbents – Reps. Elaine Luria, Jennifer Wexton, and Spanberger – as part of their efforts to take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Virginia Republicans, especially, are benefiting from voter enthusiasm after taking back the governor's mansion last fall with Glenn Youngkin's win, along with his Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares. They're also banking on redistricting, which has made some of the races more competitive.

The nation’s inflation crisis could spell victory for the party.

Inflation hit a 40-year high last month, as gas, food and rent prices surged. The consumer price index, which measures inflation, increased 8.6% annually, the largest rise since December 1981, according to the Labor Department.

'Americans are anxious':Unrelenting inflation puts pressure on Biden ahead of midterms

Voters sour on Biden and fellow Democrats 

President Joe Biden speaks during the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Friday, June 17, 2022, in Washington.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll released Friday suggested only 39% of Americans approve of the job President Joe Biden is doing as president. Even more worrying for Democrats: 47% of voters surveyed "strongly" disapprove of Biden.

And Americans are evenly split, at 40% on whether they would vote for a Republican or a Democrat for Congress if the election were held today. That's a positive sign for Republicans, who need a net gain of only five seats in the House to take control.  

USA TODAY/Suffolk poll:Biden approval rating at 39% amid economic fears; 47% 'strongly disapprove'

Athena King, a political scientist at Old Dominion University, said that while presidents don't control gas prices, voters are likely to hold the party in power responsible for their economic burdens.  

"If inflation continues to run rampant, if we do slide into a recession, we will see more voters punish the president's party for that," King said. "So it could very well help Republicans because they are not the party in power right now." 

The consumer price index for the Washington metro area  increased 1.5% for the two months that ended in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The energy index, which measures household and transportation fuels, rose 7.9% from March. Gas prices are up 9.5%. 

Carol Hickman, an office coordinator with the Virginia Beach GOP in Luria's district, said many people are alarmed at gas prices – especially given the area's tourist attractions. 

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"Economics are definitely what we're hearing from most of the people," Hickman said. "I would say out of the people that walk in my office every day, the first thing they say is, 'What are we going to do about the gas? It's going up again.'" 

The average gas price across the U.S. hit $5 a gallon for the first time ever, the AAA reported this month. In response, Biden told top oil and gas companies on Wednesday to immediately cut costs for Americans. (As of Monday, the national average is at $4.981.) 

$5 a gallon for gas?:Prices at the pump reach new high for nationwide average, AAA says

State Sen. Jen Kiggans, who is seen as the front-runner in the GOP primary for Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, which Luria represents, said the economy is the top issue voters talk to her about. 

"We knock on thousands of doors every week, including myself ... and by far and away, that is the number one issue that people are talking about – economy, economy, economy," Kiggans said in an interview with USA TODAY. 

Kiggans is in a four-candidate primary, along with Tommy Altman, Andy Baan and Jarome Bell. Bell, notably, has promoted false allegations of election fraud following the 2020 presidential election. 

Rep. Elaine Luria listens during the first January 6 Committee public hearing in the Cannon House Office Building.

Republicans have used Biden's souring poll numbers to excoriate vulnerable Democrats, who they view as proxies for the president. 

"I think Luria is the one that's most endangered," King said. Republicans "will be trying to make this election a referendum on Biden in his first two years. And we already know that presidents tend to lose seats during the midterms," she said. 

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A 'single issue' election on inflation

Paul Moog, a Vega supporter, said he would vote for whoever wins the Republican nomination in the 7th District. But he does hope inflation will cause voters to rethink who they will vote for. 

"I think that, hopefully, (because of) inflation, a lot of people who had voted for Biden will now see the error of their ways and start voting Republican," said Moog, who is a former Republican Orange County Committee chairman. 

Although Democrats believe that gun control and abortion rights will dominate the races in Virginia, several voters and experts said the economy would most likely be the leading factor. 

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"I would not be surprised if this midterm more or less ends up being a single issue vote on inflation," said J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. 

UVA's Sabato Crystal Ball calls Luria's district a tossup, and says Spanberger's district leans Democratic and Wexton's district is safe Democratic

President Joe Biden hugs Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., as he arrives on Marine One at Culpeper Regional Airport, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022, in Brandy Station, Va.

And Spanberger, Miles said, has done the best she can as a candidate.

"She's an example of a swing district Democrat that's done, at least within her power, is doing everything right," he said. "She's doing everything she can. I wouldn't say she was one of those who are kind of resting on their laurels." 

Miles pointed to Spanberger's work on fighting opioid addiction, such as introducing the the Rural Area Opioid Prevention Pilot Program Act, and her work to support law enforcement. Spanberger is a former CIA officer and was not a supporter of the "defund the police" movement.

"I would put her in the same category with Luria in that if she loses, it's  probably due to the national environment more than anything else," he said. 

Spanberger emphasized to USA TODAY that she led passage of legislation to ease the economic burdens Virginians are facing. The House recently passed the Lower Food and Fuel Costs Act, which included Spanberger's Meat and Poultry Special Investigator Act and Butcher Block Act. 

“Times are tough for the personal finances of so many Virginians and their loved ones," Spanberger said in a statement to USA TODAY.  "In Congress, I remain focused on lowering costs for Virginia families and businesses – not just using inflation as a political talking point.

"None of my potential opponents have any kind of plan to fight inflation, and I’m proud of my record of responding to the concerns of the Virginians I represent and hear from each day." 

Luria declined to respond to USA TODAY's request for comment. Wexton's campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Virginia's seventh district race:In a purple district in purple Virginia, soaring inflation takes the stage in the midterms battle

JC Hernandez, Virginia state director of the conservative Koch network Americans For Prosperity group, said the candidates who win their primaries will be the ones who most empathize with voter frustration. 

"I think that this isn't even about Republicans or Democrats," Hernandez said. "I think it's (whomever) is really in tune with the frustrations of folks who are going to come out ... I think that's probably who's going to win." 

Similarly, David Williams, a volunteer with the Virginia Beach GOP, said inflation was affecting the average person's pocketbook the most. 

"Inflation (is) hurting everybody across the entire financial spectrum," he said. "It is not subtle. It is in your face, in your wallet. Some people don't have excess money. They have to choose between feeding their family or going to work. And if they can't go to work, they can't feed their family." 

Democrats focus on abortion, Jan. 6

Inflation has hit educator Idris O’Connor hard at the pump. He used to pay $40 to fill up his tank. Now, he pays $60.

"As someone who works in higher education and has to travel almost like an hour, it's a little pinch," O'Connor said. He's now more mindful of where he travels and how he spends money on groceries. 

O'Connor, president of the Prince William Young Democrats, said he would be voting for Spanberger this year. 

"Democrats have a better legislative agenda for America than Republicans," O'Connor said, pointing to policies that support abortion and voting rights legislation. 

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Democrats have rallied against the expected overturning by the Supreme Court of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Some party activists have called for Democrats to either codify the right to an abortion or to expand the number of justices on the court. 

"Unlike our Democratic members of Congress, not a single Republican candidate has a real plan to bring down prices and tackle inflation," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Monica Robinson in a statement to USA TODAY. “They’re much too busy discussing how they plan to toss out your vote or ban Virginians from making their own health care decisions with their doctors.”

A USA TODAY analysis of congressional campaign social media messaging found that while the top issue mentioned by Republicans was inflation, for Democrats, it was Jan. 6. (Luria is a member of the special House committee investigating the deadly Capitol riots and will lead the final hearings for the investigation into the U.S. Capitol attack.) 

Economy woes:Biden says Americans are 'really, really down' over pandemic, gas prices but economy is resilient

The NRCC, unsurprisingly, disagreed with its Democratic counterpart. 

“Voters’ main concerns are going to be inflation and cost of living," said spokesman Michael McAdams, in an interview with USA TODAY.  It's wishful thinking for Democrats to think that's not going to be at the top of the ticket. In every single poll inflation is the number one issue by a large margin.”

The end game 

After finishing up a meet and greet with supporters, Vega told USA TODAY that voters were still feeling financial pain at the grocery store and at the gas pump.

"We're in the condition that we're in right now because of failed Democrat leadership and failed policies that have been brought to us down by the Democrat Party," Vega said.

Virginians have already chosen Hung Cao as Wexton's GOP opponent, but on Tuesday, they'll select the candidates who will take on Luria and Spanberger. 

The winners of the primary will be the candidate who can assuage voter fears about the economy, advocates said. 

"If you're able to connect with the voters and really kind of ease their concerns and/or people believe that you have the best path forward, I think that that's probably what's gonna resonate the best with folks who are going to come out on Tuesday," said Hernandez, of AFP-Virginia.