SANTA ANA, Calif. — Orange County, Calif., symbolized Republican struggles in America’s diverse and highly educated suburbs during Donald J. Trump’s presidency, as a backlash to Mr. Trump transformed center-right strongholds into increasingly Democratic territory.
But at a Chevron station in Santa Ana near John Wayne Airport on Friday afternoon, the anger was aimed at President Biden and his party, as Californians grappled with gas prices registering that day at $6.59 a gallon.
“I’m really unhappy,” Carmen Vega, 47, of Anaheim, said, adding that she voted for Mr. Biden but was now considering backing Republicans in the midterm elections. “The economy sucks right now, everything’s too expensive.”
And as Simona Sabo, 38, of Irvine, waxed nostalgic for Mr. Trump while filling up her S.U.V. — “What I liked was that gas prices weren’t this high” — another woman poked her head around the pump and offered a silent thumbs up before driving away.
Five months before the midterm elections, Democrats are straining to defend their narrow House majority in a brutal political environment shaped by high inflation, Mr. Biden’s low approval ratings and a strong sense among many Americans that the country is on the wrong track. But they have held out hope that a handful of California congressional contests will emerge as bright spots, thanks to the redistricting process that made some seats more hospitable to Democrats, and the importance of issues including abortion rights and gun control to many coastal voters.
Yet in California, home to the highest average price for regular gasoline in the nation — $6.326 on Sunday, according to the motor club AAA, compared with the nation’s average of $4.848 — anger over the cost of living is threatening Democrats’ ambitions. (California gas prices are typically the highest in the nation, owing in part to state taxes and regulations on emissions that require a more expensive blend of gasoline, but recent numbers have been eye-popping.)
On the cusp of Tuesday’s primary elections that will determine California’s general election matchups, there are signs that the cost of living is overshadowing virtually every other issue in some of the state’s battleground areas, according to elected officials, party strategists and polling.
“They’re beyond furious — it’s called desperation,” said Representative Lou Correa, a Democrat from Santa Ana, whose district is considered safely Democratic but neighbors more competitive Orange County seats. “I don’t hear anything about the other national issues we’re focusing on in Washington. The thing I hear about is gasoline. What are you going to do to bring down the gas prices?”
An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday found that most Americans called the economy, inflation and rising gas prices the most important issues in determining their midterm votes. Just 28 percent of those surveyed approved of Mr. Biden’s handling of inflation, and 27 percent approved of his handling of gas prices.
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“The problem for the Democrats here will be that all of the contributing economic factors, particularly inflation, that’s hurting them nationally is on steroids in California,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran California Republican strategist who is assisting some independent statewide candidates this year. “Seats that, when the maps got drawn, that they didn’t think would be competitive very well could be,” he added.
The contours of those House races will come into clearer focus after Tuesday’s primaries, which have so far appeared to be low-turnout affairs. In California primaries, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then move on to the general election.
The races against Representatives David Valadao and Mike Garcia, two Republicans, are expected to be highly competitive in general elections, given the Democratic tilt of both their new districts.
Mr. Valadao, of the Central Valley, is one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and he also faces primary challenges.
Several Republican primary contests may determine how close a number of Southern California seats become. National Republicans see a chance to defeat Representative Mike Levin, a Democrat, but there is also a competitive primary to challenge him.
There has also been something of a Republican rescue mission for Representative Young Kim. Her primary contest this year grew unexpectedly competitive, and her newly redrawn district would become far more tightly contested in November should she lose.
Two other high-profile House races are unfolding in Orange County, a place once strongly associated with Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, staunchly conservative former presidents, but now a prominent political battleground.
Representative Michelle Steel, who like Ms. Kim is a Korean American Republican who flipped a seat in 2020, is running in a new, heavily Asian American district in what is expected to be a close race against Jay Chen, a small-business owner and lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The newly drawn district somewhat favors Democrats.
And Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat with a national platform and a huge war chest, is running in a redrawn seat that is roughly evenly politically divided.
She and many other Democrats argue that their party is trying to bring down gas prices — which have spiked for reasons including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — while charging that Republicans embrace the issue as a political cudgel. And certainly, there is still time for gas prices and other costs to come down before the midterms, amid other positive economic indicators, and for the political environment to improve for Democrats in competitive races.
“My minivan is almost out of gas today and I thought, you know what, I’m not in the mood to fill it up today. Right? It’s frustrating,” Ms. Porter said, arguing that Democrats grasp voters’ pain on this issue. “There is a solution to this, and it starts by being willing to stand up to corporate abuse.”
Republicans argue that Democrats have pursued a range of inflationary measures, and some are pushing for practices like more drilling.
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On Saturday morning, Ms. Steel addressed a group of volunteers, standing before a collage of signs bearing her name and slogans like “Lower taxes!” and “Stop inflation!”
“We still pay the highest gas price in the whole country,” she said in an interview afterward, urging a suspension of the state gas tax, which is set to rise in California in July. Voters “have to go pick up their kids from school. They have to go to market, they have to go to work,” Ms. Steel added.
Mr. Chen, who is Taiwanese American, is casting Ms. Steel as too far right for the district, and, like Ms. Porter and Mr. Levin, he argued that Republicans seem primarily interested in discussing high prices for political gain.
“All they’re doing is pointing fingers and trying to rile up voters without offering any solutions,” Mr. Chen said, also arguing that issues of gun violence and the threat of Roe v. Wade being overturned may galvanize voters.
Ms. Steel said she opposed abortion rights except to protect the health of the mother and for instances of incest but did not answer directly when asked twice if she supported exceptions for rape. A spokesman, Lance Trover, later said she did support that exception.
The congresswoman missed the votes concerning the certification of the 2020 election because she said she had tested positive for the coronavirus; in the interview, she said she did not know how she would have voted. Ms. Steel also said she did not know if Mr. Biden won legitimately; Mr. Trover later noted that she has said that she believed he did and that she maintained that position.
Scott Baugh, a former chairman of the Orange County Republican Party and former Republican leader in the State Assembly, is considered the leading candidate to challenge Ms. Porter. In an interview that began in his S.U.V., which he said had cost $140 to fill up, he called Mr. Biden “our legitimate president.”
However, Mr. Baugh declined to say how he would have voted concerning the certification of the 2020 election, citing concerns about “irregularities.” Election officials have said there was no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race.
As Mr. Baugh made his way through a wealthy, marina-adjacent neighborhood, he appeared far more animated when sounding traditional Republican notes on fiscal restraint and the economy. The candidate insisted that amid inflation and high gas prices, local independent and Republican voters who opposed Mr. Trump had already returned to his party’s fold.
“They’re not happy with the direction of the country,” he said.
At a campaign rally for Ms. Porter near the ocean, Heather Dodd, 54, seemed acutely aware of those dynamics.
She said she also worried that Democrats were unenthusiastic, and she fretted over the effect on Tuesday’s turnout and in November. Voters were venting frustration at the president over global problems, like gas prices, which Mr. Biden can’t single-handedly control, she said.
“People’s expectations are not reasonable,” she said. But, she said, many of her more conservative neighbors in Sunset Beach did not appear to share her view.
“Everybody’s complaining,” she said of gas prices. “It’s over $6.50 in our neighborhood.”