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.”
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.
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.
Gas tax politics dominate congressional races
Democrats’ hopes of winning the 22nd District rest on voters like Conrad and Diaz, who both said they lean left but see few solutions from the party to address inflation.
“There’s a lot of talk about doing things, but it’s not getting done,” Conrad said.
Maldonado says she’s essentially tuned out politics because she doesn’t trust either side to help. “Everybody says one thing, but then they end up doing nothing at all or end up doing something different,” she said.
As the son of a field crew supervisor who earned extra money for his school clothes by picking grapes and kiwifruit as a kid when one of his dad’s workers didn’t show up, Salas seemed particularly well suited to speak to these voters as he leans in to his working-class roots.
“I knew they were going to punish me,” Salas told CNN. But he said he kept thinking of people on fixed incomes who didn’t have the extra margin to pay more for gas. “I had direct conversations with the governor at the time too — and I was just telling him, ‘Look, this plan does nothing for people in the Valley that have to drive to do everything. We have to drive to drop our kids off at school. We have to drive to get to a grocery store. For us, we have no option but to drive.'”
Salas recalled how the vote created havoc on the Assembly floor. But later, he said, “I had people just stop by the office, come by just wanting to shake my hand — all parties, Democrats, Republicans, independents.”
Valadao’s campaign did not respond to repeated requests from CNN for an interview to discuss his plans to address both gas prices and inflation.
But Robert Jones, an adviser to Valadao, took aim at the recent votes that Salas missed, charging that he has not been “honest with the voters about where he really is” on that issue.
“He has one vote in the distant past to point to and every other time he had a chance (to suspend the gas tax) he did not have the courage to do it on the floor in Sacramento,” Jones said. “The reason voters have supported David (Valadao) throughout the years — and what they’re looking for in a representative — is somebody who’s willing to stand up to their party and take the tough voters. Rudy has no history of that. When tough votes come around, Rudy sticks his finger in the air and changes his vote in the dead of night. That’s not leadership.”
Salas’ campaign manager Abby Olmstead pushed back on that characterization. “Rudy Salas was the only Democrat who voted against increasing the gas tax when it was originally proposed,” she said. She pointed to his vote in the Assembly last week to bring up a bill that would have suspended the gas tax for one year. (At the time the measure failed last Wednesday, Salas was recorded as not voting, but he later amended his vote to register his support for the maneuver as permitted by the Assembly’s rules).
Keeping Washington at a distance
Salas says he challenges fellow Democrats who want to phase out that drilling by asking them to think about the alternatives, including bringing oil in by tanker from overseas from countries with far less environmental regulation.
“You want me to put all these people out of a job, for something that actually is worse for the environment? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Salas said.
While he has promised to focus on issues like expanding health care and finding compromise on immigration in Congress, Salas’ pitch to voters is hyper-local — projects they “can see and touch” from his time on the Bakersfield City Council and in the Assembly.
When asked which of the President’s accomplishments, or what aspects of the Biden agenda, he plans to focus on in his campaign, Salas replied, “I’m sure we’ll find them. We’re just focused on the issues here locally.”
“People want somebody that they can talk to, that understands what they’re going through,” he said.
And while that strategy may make midterm campaigns like Salas’ feel more like a mayoral race than a congressional contest, keeping Washington at a distance may be the safest play this year for Democrats trying to distance themselves from Biden’s low approval ratings.