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High gas prices complicate Democrats’ hopes of picking up US House seats in California

It has been a year of difficult choices for families in California’s 22nd Congressional District — a place Democrats have long eyed as one of their top pickup opportunities as they look to hold onto the US House in this fall’s midterms. But as the Golden State contends with the highest gas prices in the nation heading next Tuesday’s primaries, the financial pain felt by families is overshadowing every other issue.

Yessenia Maldonado, a 46-year-old dental assistant and single mom of six, makes weekly calculations of what she must give up in exchange for one extra gallon of gas. “Am I going to buy the milk for my kids or am I going to buy the gas to go to work? Because it’s kind of the same price,” she said during a recent grocery trip to Costco, adding that she now limits her drives to the essential trips.

Feliciano Diaz, a-45-year-old truck driver, said he has scaled back on activities for his 14-year-old and a 10-year-old, like guitar lessons, and is now also halting long-planned home projects “because we don’t know what’s happening” and how long the gas price spike will last.

Mary Conrad, 69, resorted to applying for food stamps as she tries to get by on her Social Security and disability checks. “There’s just not enough money, so I’m charging my credit cards to eat,” Conrad said as she set out on a shopping trip on a recent Sunday. “I’m making the payments, but the balances keep going up.”

All three said they don’t see anything happening in Washington to address their concerns. The frustration with the party in power is palpable, a foreboding sign for Democrats in districts like this one where the party had hoped their recruit, state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, could unseat GOP Rep. David Valadao, who won his seat back in 2020 at the same time President Joe Biden was carrying it after losing it in 2018.

When the nonpartisan redistricting commission drew its final lines for the Golden State last year, Democrats viewed California as a treasure trove of opportunities with as many as eight to 10 competitive House races up and down the state. The new 22nd District topped that list after the new lines created a tougher path for Valadao by removing some Republican portions of the district.

To Democratic strategists, Valadao initially looked even more vulnerable because he had voted to impeach former President Donald Trump after the January 6, 2021, insurrection, which angered some GOP voters. But out of the six House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and are running for reelection, Valadao is the only one the former President has not yet endorsed against.

The first test of Valadao’s strength within his own party will come in Tuesday’s primary, which will be determined by California’s “jungle primary” rules where the top-two finishers advance to the November election regardless of party. He’s being challenged on his right flank by former Fresno City Council member Chris Mathys, who took on the congressman because of his impeachment vote. Mathys sued the state after it rejected his request to be identified as a “Trump Conservative/Businessman” on the ballot.

Democrats will be closely watching to see how Salas finishes in the primary as they try to determine whether their party’s voters are motivated to cast ballots in this sour economic climate.

With inflation showing no signs of abating — and gas prices in the state topping an average of $6.15 per gallon on Memorial Day — Democrats’ success increasingly hinges on the ability of candidates like Salas, who has been one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top recruits, to show frustrated voters that they understand the economic pain and are trying to address it.


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