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Republican campaign ads hammer Democrats on inflation

Each month brings new 40-year highs in inflation and this year has seen spiking prices at the pump, in the grocery store and in housing — a fact that has not escaped the notice of Republicans hoping to parlay those numbers into election victories in the fall. 

One avenue Republicans are taking is advertising: Republican lawmakers, candidates and conservative groups have been hammering Democrats with advertisements over the airwaves and online about inflation. 

"Liberals spent trillions on a wasteful spending bill, and now we face record inflation," the narrator said in an ad by the American Action Network. A National Republican Senate Committee ad slapped a price tag on the inflationary costs Americans are paying in Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson is running for reelection: "$5,000 a year, that's the burden of Joe Biden's inflation tax on Wisconsin families," the narrator says.

And while Americans are being inundated with GOP messaging on the issue, particularly in battleground states and swing districts, Democrats have spent little time or money directly countering the attacks. 

An by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that focuses on inflation. Twitter/Ron Johnson

According to political ad tracking by AdImpact, Republicans have spent more than $40.6 million on television advertisements mentioning inflation this year that have so far aired 127,000 times. They have also spent more than $1.6 million on digital ads on Facebook with text mentioning inflation, which have received more than 97 million impressions. 

Democrats' spending does not even come close. Just over $4.4 million has been spent on TV ads mentioning inflation this year, which have aired just over 13,000 times. On Facebook, Democrats have spent just over $300,000 on ads with inflation in the text, making 45 million impressions. 

Inflation has soared 9.1% from a year ago, the latest Labor Department data shows well above what is considered neutral or optimal, around 2.5%. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, it was closer to 2.5%; ahead of the 2014 midterms, it was closer to 1.7%. While gas prices have dropped some since mid-June, Americans are still grappling with other increased costs and the reality that inflation isn't expected to ease any time soon, exacerbated by ongoing supply chain challenges and the war in Ukraine

Polls in recent months have shown the economy and inflation are the top issue for Americans right now with the midterms less than four months away. Inflation was the most urgent issue according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, at 34%, an opinion shared by Republicans and independents; Democrats ranked it third.

That Republicans are seizing on the issue comes as no surprise. Senator Rick Scott of Florida last year told The Wall Street Journal that inflation was a "gold mine" for Republicans. The party is blaming the Biden administration and Washington in general, where Democrats control both the House and Senate, for policies they claim have led to soaring costs. In particular, they have targeted the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that passed in March 2021 without the support of a single Republican in the House or Senate. But while their ads take aim at the president and Democrats, they provide few solutions.

"I think the negative messaging is more effective," said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. "Democrats could come back and say, 'But hey, what are their solutions?' But ultimately most elections are just a referendum on the incumbent or party that's in power. It's the job of the party out of power to convince voters they're doing a bad job."

The Republican-affiliated group One Nation, which has spent more than $29 million so far this year according to AdImpact, has aired a series of recent ads targeting Senate Democrats in battleground states on issues including inflation.

"Washington spending is killing us with inflation and sky high prices on groceries and gas," the narrator says in one ad taking aim at incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who is defending his seat against GOP nominee Herschel Walker. The ad goes on to admonish Warnock to stop voting for "reckless spending" to stop inflation. 

While Democrats have spent far less on ads specifically mentioning inflation, they are instead airing ads focused on how to lower specific costs. Democrats spent an estimated $9 million on TV ads specifically mentioning lower costs, and have touted actions taken or proposals by Democrats.

"We need Maggie Hassan to keep fighting to lower costs for families," says the narrator in an ad airing in New Hampshire by Majority Forward. It focused on Hassan's push for a Senate bill that would enable Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. 

More than $18 million in total has already been spent this year on advertising in the Senate race in New Hampshire alone according to AdImpact, with more than half of it coming from Democrats, even though the primary to determine her GOP challenger isn't until September.

"We're making sure voters across the battlegrounds are seeing and hearing directly from trusted community members about how Democrats are fighting to cut through the gridlock and lower costs, from the gas pump to the grocery store," said JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC and Majority Forward, in a statement to CBS News. A recent ad featured clips of local news anchors discussing her plan to ease gas prices. He said Republicans are offering zero solutions and too busy playing the blame game. "The contrast is clear, and you can bet we intend to hammer it home." 

Democrats inherently acknowledge the economic pain Americans are suffering. In Arizona, which will hold its primaries on Aug. 2, over $70 million has already been spent on ads in the state this year alone, according to AdImpact. Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, who does not face a primary opponent next week, has spent more than $17 million — largely in anticipation of the Republican line against him.

In one ad, Kelly said he'll do whatever it takes to "lower costs now," even taking on his own party with a pitch for more domestic oil production. He also highlighted that he favors temporarily eliminating the gas tax and cutting shipping regulations to put more food on shelves. In a more recent ad focused on Arizonans struggling to fill up the tank, he blamed the corporate greed of oil companies. 

Many Democrats reported strong fundraising totals from the second quarter of the year, which could help them get their message on the air and online more often as Election Day nears. But outside groups and committees on both sides of the aisle have already spent hundreds of millions in federal elections this cycle, not just in competitive primaries but gearing up for the general election. 

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