A woman behind the counter at the McDonald’s in southwest Ohio showed Rep. Tim Ryan the math she was trying to work out last week: filling up her tank would be $20 cheaper in West Virginia, but would that cost less than the gas she’d use on the drive there and back? And what about her shifts, or taking care of her three kids?
Meanwhile, the companies that own whichever station she ends up at are all reporting billions of dollars in profit per quarter.
“They’re making huge amounts of money,” the Ohio congressman and Senate candidate told CNN, “while putting the squeeze on the worker.”
That’s the kind of voter the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm is hoping to appeal to with a new ad being rolled out on Tuesday. It’s part of the populist, pouncing-on-profiteering approach that Democrats are pushing in response to “I did that!” stickers of President Joe Biden popping up on gas pumps across the country, people familiar with the shift in campaign strategy tell CNN.
And Senate Democrats will lead the charge in arguing that companies are raising prices while racking up profits – with Trump-era tax breaks passed by Republicans letting the shareholders and the CEOs take home more of that money for themselves than ever before.
The clearest signal of the shift will be the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm on Tuesday rolling out a new ad ahead of Biden’s State of the Union address. The first half touts success on passing the infrastructure bill and cutting unemployment. Then comes a sharp switch to ominous music. Images flash by of the Wall Street sign, glasses full of red wine being clinked and $100 bills being counted into someone’s hands, ending with a shot of a smiling Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Mitch McConnell’s fighting too — for the same wealthy insiders who get rich by keeping prices high,” the narrator says. “With McConnell in charge, they win and you lose.”
“What you’re seeing right now with rising prices is those very companies that received huge tax breaks are actually earning huge profits and they’re increasing their prices,” said Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “When you have large corporations actually bragging to their shareholders that they’re able to increase prices, I think that will anger the American people.”
Biden himself will be pressing this line on Tuesday night, when he delivers his first State of the Union address to Congress. “We’ve seen higher prices all around the world related to the pandemic, but we’ve also seen huge corporations taking advantage of the American people while making astronomical profits,” said a White House official. “We are focused on holding them accountable where we see it, and often we’ve seen them bragging about it.”
Poll after poll shows that voters’ disapproval of Biden’s handling of the economy is a major factor in sinking the President’s overall approval rating below 40%. All over the country Democrats are anxious about how much worse those numbers could still get as sanctions imposed by the President in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine cut off the Russian fuel supply from international markets.
But several Democratic strategists tell CNN they see reason for hope in voters’ answers when asked specifically about inflation and whom they blame, in public and private polls. In a Washington Post-ABC poll last week, for example, 50% of people combined said they blame Biden “a great deal” or “a good amount” for inflation, while 68% of people combined said they blame corporations trying to increase profits.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who is advising the Senate Democrats, said those numbers in his results are even starker among independents, adding that voters already believe the populist argument and are predisposed to think of Republicans as associated with corporations.
“We’re seeing an enormous level of cynicism and skepticism about the way that big corporations conduct themselves. Voters think that corporations try to squeeze every penny of profit out of every opportunity, regardless of the consequences,” Garin said.
Several outside allies in the business world had pressed White House chief of staff Ron Klain and other aides to veer away after the President started speaking in those terms in December. There’s not a clear economic connection between corporate profits and inflation, they said. Nonetheless, when Biden does get to midterm campaigning, though, that standing-up-for-the-little guy approach – which resonates so deeply for Biden himself – will be back in his speeches, Peters said, citing his midterm planning conversation with the President last month. White House aides agree.
For weeks, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has pushed for Democrats to land on exactly this kind of anti-corporate argument, making the point both in Monday meetings of the Senate leadership, and during a February lunch discussion with the whole caucus as they stressed over how to address inflation, according to an aide familiar.
Two weeks ago, he laid out his thinking in a speech on the Senate floor, saying, “Shock of all shocks, oil company profits are now higher than they have been in over seven years,” laying out the same kinds of statistics about profits and massive CEO pay for grocery store chains and pharmaceutical companies.
Sanders, though, has pushed for legislation to match the rhetoric, urging colleagues to take aim at taxes and other corporate behavior.
From the conversations Ryan has had on the campaign trail in Ohio, he says that’s an essential piece of how Democrats need to prove themselves to voters.
“People are smarter than a lot of politicians give them credit for. They know we’re coming out of a pandemic. They know that Putin is a complete a**hole,” he said. “The question really comes down to, are we able to do something about it — and are we trying to do something about it.”
Ryan said he’d like to see the President use his State of the Union speech to call for reinstating the child tax credit, which was sending several hundred dollars per month to millions of families in America, pitched directly as the bulwark against rising costs as Biden has sometimes framed it. Propose a working- and middle-class tax cut, Ryan argued, tell Congress to vote on it in the next few weeks — and, at the very least, see if Republicans will go on record voting “no.” That’s how to make that woman at the McDonald’s, or the health care workers at the roundtable he hosted in Cleveland on Monday, think that Democrats are actually worth getting out and supporting.
The message is already spreading. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s running for a full term, hosted an event at a gas station when in his state to talk up a bill to create a temporary holiday on the gas tax — another idea which economists have largely been skeptical would have major actual benefits for consumer. There, he turned his attention to the gas companies themselves.
“While they are seeing record prices, oil and gas companies are seeing record profits,” Warnock said, pledging to “hold these oil and gas companies accountable.”
Val Demings, the Democratic Florida congresswoman running against GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, echoed the sentiment. “I grew up the daughter of a maid and a janitor,” she told CNN. “I know exactly how important a dollar is to so many families, and that’s why we must hold big corporations accountable for exploiting crises to profiteer off hardworking Floridians.”
In another element of cohesion for Democrats who can rarely get on the same page about anything, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office put out a similar statement on Monday, hitting Republicans for voting for corporate tax breaks. “As wealthy corporations hike prices on the backs of working families, Republicans are fighting tooth and claw to prevent those corporate giants from paying their fair share.”
“It’s a powerful contrast anywhere and everywhere,” Garin said. “It allows Democrats to get off of defense and start playing offense on the cost of living — and the good news for Democrats is it’s an offense that is quite powerful.”