Rep. Katie Porter talking about 'Big Oil Windfall Tax Now'

On Wednesday, March 30, 2022, a press conference to support calls for a Big Oil windfall profits tax was held in front of the US Capitol Building. The press conference was attended by Rep. Katie Porter (center), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (l), Rep. Ro Khanna (r), and other Members of Congress and climate justice advocates who were there to call attention to Big Oil trying to profiteer from the war in Ukraine by driving up prices at the pump. A windfall profits tax would put a tax on their undo profits and send a dividend directly to Americans struggling with high fossil fuel prices. (Photo: Khalid Eid | Survival Media Agency)

How Democrats Can Play Offense on Gas Prices

Why aren't more Democrats seizing the opportunity to blame their Republican opponents for pandering to Big Oil? It's not too late to shift gears.

Waiting in line at a convenience store here in New Hampshire the other evening, I started watching a TV in the corner above the counter. A dark and grainy image of the U.S. Capitol flickered onto the screen, then an unflattering photo of Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, who is running for re-election this November, and the text, "Sen. Maggie Hassan and DC Liberals Voted for $12 Billion in HIGHER ENERGY TAXES."

The hit was paid for by One Nation, a conservative dark money group with ties to Karl Rove, and it's just one of the hundreds of ads that Republicans and their allies are churning out before the election to try and blame President Biden and Democrats for the pain voters are feeling at the pump and on their home heating bills. The scary thing? The ads seem to be working.

This week, oil companies will start announcing another round of exorbitant profits, giving Democrats the opportunity to play offense.

Recent New York Times/Siena College polling showed that 49 percent of voters say they plan to vote for a Republican candidate versus just 45 percent for Democrats. The determinant factor for many of these voters is inflation, and rising gas prices in particular. And with prices set to keep going up over the coming weeks, the problem for Democrats is only going to get worse unless they can find an effective closing argument to help turn the tide.

The good news is, that closing argument is sitting right in front of them--and progressive candidates are already showing how to put it into effect. It has four key points and goes like this:

  1. Big Oil is gouging you at the gas pump, taking advantage of the War in Ukraine to drive up gas prices and make record profits.
  2. Democrats want to stop this price gouging and pass a Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax that would put money back in your wallet.
  3. Republicans are in the pocket of Big Oil and want to keep prices high to reward their political donors.
  4. Vote for the candidate who is willing to stand up to Big Oil.

We've known this argument works since all the way back in March, just after Russia invaded Ukraine and prices began to really skyrocket. A poll conducted back then showed that an astounding 87% of voters wanted Congress to crack down on price gouging and over 80% supported the idea of a windfall profits tax, which would tax oil companies' excess profits and use the earnings to send a check to consumers struggling with high prices. This tracks with other polling that shows that the public is ready to blame Big Oil corporations for high prices and supports politicians who are willing to stand up to the industry.

So why aren't more Democrats seizing on this message and running hundreds of their own ads blaming their Republican opponents for pandering to Big Oil donors? Part of the problem is the mixed messaging coming out of the Biden Administration. When gas prices first started going up, the White House confused the issue by trying to label it "Putin's Price Hike," shifting the attention away from Big Oil. They then tried to project an image of "working with" the industry, meeting with oil CEOs and sending President Biden to fist-bump with the Saudi Crown Prince. When prices temporarily dipped this summer, the Administration rushed to own the issue--not thinking about how when prices went back up, as they are now, they'd own that too.

A better approach for Biden and the party would be to keep the focus exclusively on Big Oil and their windfall profits. That's the strategy that some of the Democrats' best communicators are using in the field to good effect. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, running for U.S. Senate, has talked about prosecuting Big Oil executives for price gouging. In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has been able to put her GOP challenger Adam Laxalt on the defensive for his ties to Chevron. In Wisconsin, Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes has gone after Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the incumbent, for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's received from Big Oil.

Learning how to deal with Big Oil's price hikes isn't just important for this election cycle, it will be key for navigating the decade ahead.

These attacks work, but they need to be backed up with big advertising, digital, and campaign efforts. Instead, most big-money Democratic groups are ignoring the issue or putting out the same sort of mixed messaging from the White House. Here in New Hampshire, the only ad that I've seen Senator Hassan run about gas prices is a piece about "taking on members of my own party to push a gas tax holiday." That may show her independent streak, but it also reinforces the false narrative that Democrats aren't doing enough to tackle the issue, when really it's Republicans and Big Oil who are to blame. Hassan has used better messaging in her tweets and statements, but without real spending to support it, the narrative isn't getting through.

It's not too late to shift gears. This week, oil companies will start announcing another round of exorbitant profits, giving Democrats the opportunity to play offense. Outside of Washington, Democratic candidates and their supporters should focus their message on blaming Big Oil for high prices and Republicans for being in the pocket of the industry. In D.C., Biden, Schume, and Pelosi should throw their full weight behind the idea first championed by Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse for a Big Oil Windfall Profits Tax.

Learning how to deal with Big Oil's price hikes isn't just important for this election cycle, it will be key for navigating the decade ahead. As our economy makes the transition to clean energy, the fossil fuel industry will do everything it can to slow progress, including jacking up prices to try and swing public opinion against climate action. The only effective response is to turn public anger back on the industry where it belongs. Let's hope more Democrats realize that before it's too late.

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