By MARGARET TALEV
Filling up your gas tank? Don’t be surprised if a Democrat is waiting at the station.
With $3-a-gallon gas near the top of the list of voters’ frustrations with the status quo, some challengers seeking to unseat the Republican majority in Congress this November have found a gimmick that they think will resonate with voters — and they’re pumping it for all it’s worth.
In Washington state, Gas Pump Man, a campaign volunteer disguised by a leotard and mask, has been making appearances at filling stations on behalf of Democratic challenger Darcy Burner to accuse the local congressman, Republican Dave Reichert, of being too cozy with the oil industry.
In North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio, the Democratic candidates themselves are rolling up their sleeves and filling up cars and minivans for half-price or less, as low as $1.20 a gallon. Their campaigns are picking up the difference in price.
Petroleum prices are affected by trends bigger than Congress, including global and Mideast tensions, the growth of China and India, and projected supply shortages, analysts said.
But across the country, Democratic challengers are playing up how much Republican incumbents received in campaign contributions from oil companies, and any votes cast to help the oil industry.
The latest event was held Thursday by Democrat John Cranley, a Cincinnati city council member who’s seeking to unseat Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot in what national analysts consider a competitive race.
Chabot’s campaign wasn’t amused.
"Voters understand this was a stunt," spokeswoman Jessica Towhey said. "Everyone’s concerned about the high prices of gas, and Steve Chabot has spent quite a bit of time working toward real solutions for this problem."
It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats were accusing Chabot of political stunts. Last year, he championed a short-lived Republican effort to give Americans $500 tax credits to offset higher fuel costs.
Democrats’ gas-station fancy began with Larry Kissell, a schoolteacher and former textile worker from Biscoe, N.C., who launched his cheap-gas promotion Aug. 3 as part of a long-shot candidacy against GOP Rep. Robin Hayes. Regular unleaded had been selling for $2.89 a gallon in Biscoe, but Kissell offered it that day for $1.22 a gallon, which what he says it cost when Hayes was elected eight years ago.
"It was amazing how many people waited in line for an hour and a half or two hours. We had over 500 people come through," he said. "They were all smiles, all, ‘Thank you for understanding,’ what they’re going through."
Soon after, Democrat Mike Weaver held a similar event to campaign against Republican Rep. Ron Lewis in Kentucky. Other campaigns also are considering the idea.
Republicans say it’s hypocritical for Democrats to campaign for cheaper gas while opposing more domestic drilling off the coast or in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Democrats counter that those ventures probably wouldn’t reduce prices at the pump and could hurt the environment. Both parties say they favor research to develop more renewable energy, but nobody claims that would bring down gas prices anytime soon.
Republicans are suggesting that Democrats’ gasoline events might run afoul of federal campaign law, which prohibits payment in exchange for votes.
But Trevor Potter, a campaign-finance lawyer and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said the gas events sounded comparable to handing out campaign T-shirts or food at a rally. "I think it’s legal so long as they don’t say we’re giving you cheap gas in return for proof that you voted today," he said.