Rising inflation increases pressure on Georgia Democrats

The first words out of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s lips after he qualified to run for another term was a vow to “lower the costs for consumers” in Washington. Stacey Abrams is trying to tie the angst over rising prices to a lack of vision from Gov. Brian Kemp.

And down-ticket Democrats are fielding growing complaints from voters concerned about the soaring costs of gas and household goods — even as they worry that the economic pressure could put their November chances of flipping statewide offices in peril.

As Georgia grapples with soaring inflation, Democrats are struggling to sharpen their response to the economic fallout to counter Republicans who are eager to frame the rising prices as the defining theme in November.

Signs of that clash are replete across the campaign trail, as GOP candidates eager to pivot from the ugly internal Republican feud over Donald Trump find common ground in blaming President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies in Georgia for the sticker shock.

“It is getting expensive to be an American! Look at your grocery, gas, and energy bills — they just keep going up!” Herschel Walker, the leading Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, said in a social media post.

“Don’t let Biden and Warnock fool you and blame others for their bad policy decisions,” Walker said. “They are responsible for this!”

Republicans have good reason to think they’ve touched a political nerve. Annual inflation in metro Atlanta climbed into double-digit territory last month, the fastest increase in the region since the early 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Prices for household products, groceries and housing are climbing rapidly, and skyrocketing oil costs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have sent gas prices to new heights.

Nor will increasing costs soon abate, despite the Federal Reserve’s efforts to cool the hot market. The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russian oil have triggered a runup in fuel prices while the pandemic continues to disrupt the global supply chain.

Rising prices, rising concerns

Even before Russia’s invasion tightened fuel supply, signs of the economic aftershocks in Georgia were growing.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed a plurality of Georgians — 45% — said rising prices have had a “noticeable” impact on their lives, while one-third said it took a “negative, significant” toll.

The poll also showed Biden’s approval rating plummeted by double digits, echoing other national surveys that show the Democrat’s approval ratings slumping in part over his handling of the economy.

Democratic candidates up and down the ballot have pushed their own proposals meant to show voters they are combating the rising costs.

Warnock backs measures to suspend the federal gas tax, cap the rate of insulin and allow local governments to use federal dollars to finance sales tax holidays on groceries, clothing and medicine. Other Democrats are feeling out their own messages to soothe worried voters.

“I’m a Realtor. Housing prices are going up, and I can’t get them to go down,” said Maggie Goldman, a Democratic contender for a Fulton County Commission seat.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“But I can help people get more money for their property,” she said. “Things are going to get more expensive, and we need to pay people more for it.”

As she knocked on doors in a left-leaning Gwinnett County-based state House district, Ruwa Romman heard a volley of concerns about rising prices. She told voters that legislators need to embrace a long-term vision as well.

“We need a multipronged approach to make our cities more walkable and less car-centric. The message we need to hone is there are a lot of challenges but that Democrats want to fix them,” she said. “For some reason, that message isn’t permeating, but that’s why local candidates can help.”

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Paulding County Republican, has a very different message for his constituents.

“Our American generation is paying for more and getting less,” he said. “Inflation is taking prosperity away from Georgians — along with their real wages.”

A costly ‘mess’

The growing economic strain also puts the GOP’s internal divisions on display. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s allies have tested messaging that pins the blame for rising prices on Kemp. Other Republicans hope the pricing turmoil helps more experienced candidates.

“You’ve got an international crisis going on in Eastern Europe. You’ve got inflation going through the roof. Everyone is feeling the pain of gas pumps,” said Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL struggling to gain traction in the GOP’s U.S. Senate primary against Walker.

“These times require real leadership,” Saddler said. “Celebrities aren’t going to get us out of this mess.”

The governor and his allies, meanwhile, have uniformly trained their focus on Biden. Kemp often blames the White House for policies he says are bad for the economy even as he highlights the state’s low jobless rates and recent economic development wins.

This week, Kemp marshaled bipartisan support behind a measure to suspend the state gas tax to give a slight reprieve to drivers. The governor signed the measure Friday, though critics noted there’s no guarantee the savings would be passed along to drivers.

Asked whether he should shoulder the blame for inflation, Kemp bristled at the suggestion.

“That’d be a great question for the president of the United States. We need to have a better energy policy than we have right now,” he said, pointing to the legislation. “We realize that Georgians need relief at the pump, and we’re going to get them that.”

In her second run for governor, Abrams has focused her message on the economic benefits of expanding Medicaid. Pressed on her plan to stem inflation, the Democrat said improving access to health care and leveling economic inequities will create thousands of new jobs.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

“We are facing economic challenges. But people are also anxious and depressed, and we need a leader who acknowledges the legitimacy of their fears and their feelings,” she said. “But we also need a leader who has the vision of what comes next. And I have both.”

Some Georgians hope the economic uncertainty offers a rare chance for political unity.

Claire Mullin, a physical therapist, is among the Georgians who have felt the pain in her pocketbook. She said politicians should be clear that the “war in Ukraine is messing with everybody’s economy” and that more economic fallout is expected.

“People aren’t really in tune with what’s going on here,” she said. “We need to see people reaching across the aisle to work together.”

Staff writer Michael Kanell contributed to this article.