Today’s Courier Herald Column:
To be quite frank about it, it’s hard to do anything but acknowledge that the nomination process for the Republicans attempting to find a challenger to Barack Obama is in shambles. Somehow, a process designed to vet potential world leaders has winnowed the field down to someone who first ran for President as a Libertarian in 1988 and three other guys who haven’t won an election in at least ten years.
With each having significant flaws that will make it difficult for some segments of the Republican base to vote for them – much less the fact that some seem to downright repel independent voters – some GOPers are already preparing to change their focus to holding the House and picking up seats in the Senate. It is hard to see how one of these guys can win a general election.
We are still some eight months and change before November’s general election, which is several eternities in political time. One factor looms large that can change not only the Presidential election but all other elections much closer to home. Quite simply, if gas prices are $3 per gallon it is hard to imagine one of the current potential GOP nominees beating President Barack Obama. If gas prices are $5 per gallon, it is hard to imagine President Obama beating anyone the GOP would nominate.
Independent voters decide elections. Voters who remain undecided late into a campaign are generally not the people who read political columns, have strong political or ideological allegiances, or even can often articulate exactly why they decided to choose a particular candidate. Each, however, will have to touch a gas pump once or twice a week, and at $5 per gallon, would receive a direct reminder that things may not be well.
And they likely would not. U.S. consumers spend an estimated 8.5% of their total household budget on fuel. The cost of gas is embedded in most consumer products. A steep jump in gas prices as is now predicted by Memorial Day – just 3 months away. This would take the extra money out of the pockets of Americans that was recently added by the extension of the payroll tax cut, and likely stall the slight glimmers of hope seen in recent consumer spending patterns.
All of which will make it more difficult for an incumbent President to make the case he has the country on the right track. Republicans would likely run non-stop ads about the President’s refusal to build the Keystone Pipeline, opening the U.S. up to newly discovered reserves of Canadian oil. They would likely run 10 year old footage from Bush’s first year in office where Democrats killed drilling in Alaska’s National Wildlife refuge by stating that it would be ten years before we saw any of that oil. “Happy Anniversary” is likely to be a general election slogan.
Lest Georgia Republicans get too giddy over the prospect that gas prices will bail out the GOP’s strategic campaign ineptness, they should remember that while Obama will get a lot of the direct blame, a surly electorate is generally anti-incumbent, not just anti-President. The same electorate is not likely to be kind to a T-SPLOST vote either, unlikely to raise their own taxes when their budgets are being crimped at the pump.
The AJC’s Kyle Wingfield pointed out Monday that the T-SPLOST, currently scheduled for July, may be the first electoral casualty of $4.50 gas. As gas prices have already risen sharply and are expected to rise as much as $1 per gallon or more before the vote, there will be additional unwanted publicity prior to the vote.
Georgia motor fuel taxes are reset twice annually, with additional changes if there are extreme price changes. Taxes will almost certainly be scheduled to increase July 1, just weeks prior to the T-SPLOST vote. Because of precedent by both Governors Perdue and Deal, there will likely be cries for the Governor to suspend any tax increases as consumers suffer at the pump. This would put Governor Deal in the awkward position of having to defend a gas tax increase, or reduce the amount of motor fuel taxes that would be collected to pay for transportation projects.
Either action could be used against a T-SPLOST vote. T-SPLOST opponents can either claim that consumers can’t afford an additional 1% tax when they are paying so much more at the pump. But if the Governor cuts the tax, they can ask how if transportation funds are so critically low how Georgia can afford to cut funds for such projects for political expediency of leaders who want to claim a tax cut just before elections yet ask taxpayers to raise their own taxes.
That same surly electorate can also choose to exercise a bit of vengeance on Republican primary ballots. If TEA Party activists carry through with their intentions, those they choose to challenge with primary opposition may get a lift as the Taxed Enough Already base turns on Republican incumbents. Rising gas prices may in fact be able to sink all boats.