In one California city, rising prices overshadow economy's strength, spelling trouble for Democrats

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  • Joe Biden
    Joe Biden
    46th and current president of the United States

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. - A 29-year-old hairdresser is weighing how much more to charge clients because of her rising costs. A 53-year-old property inspector could cancel family jaunts to scenic Monterey because gas is so expensive. And a 63-year-old power plant worker was so startled by the price of bread at the supermarket that he called his wife to make sure it was right.

As the economy picks up momentum in the final weeks of 2021, inflation fears are washing over this politically divided city north of Los Angeles. Consumer spending is strong and some residents acknowledge they're more secure financially because of the stock market's performance in the past 12 months. But as they watch prices go up at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and wholesalers, the painful sting of inflation is seeping deep into their mindsets, hardening political views that Democrats across the country could struggle to change ahead of next year's midterm elections.

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"I definitely think it's not a coincidence that prices were lower in the last administration," said Alina Sañez, a hairdresser who is fretting over how to pass the spiking costs of supplies she uses, such as disposable gloves, on to her clients.

Sañez said she is a registered Democrat but that her perspective has shifted as she's watched economic trends impact her personally. As prices rise all around her, she said she holds President Joe Biden responsible. She is telling clients that her $85 charge for a cut, color, and blow dry will no longer cover the blow dry. That will soon cost extra.

Voters such as Sañez could hold the fate of Congress' Democratic majority in their hands next year. Santa Clarita, a city of around 215,000 some 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, is part of California's 25th congressional district, which elected a Republican House member by just 333 votes in the last election. Although its boundaries could change because of a redistricting process, the district is already being targeted by both political parties as they gear up for bruising midterm elections. Those midterms, less than 12 months away, could shift the balance of power in Washington and force Biden to reckon with an emboldened Republican majority.

The district's current representative, Republican Mike Garcia, said local voters are rightfully concerned about rising prices, which he blamed partly on massive spending bills pushed by Biden and congressional Democrats. The most recent major initiative to become law, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package enacted in mid-November, had some GOP support, though Garcia opposed it.

He said part of the case he will be making to voters is that they should elect a Republican Congress to put a check on Washington's spending.

"The problems that we're seeing are a direct result of the policies, and the policies are a direct result of, unfortunately, this Democrat party that has control of the House and Senate as well as the White House," Garcia said in an interview, reiterating a common GOP refrain. "Right now, the groupthink mentality that we are suffering from is one of spending our way out of problems when it comes to the economy."

Economists disagree about how big a role the trillions in relief and stimulus approved by Washington over the course of the pandemic have had on inflation, which is on its highest trajectory in decades. Prices jumped more than 6% in October compared with last year. This is happening, in part, because the economy is snapping back from a historic shock after the coronavirus pandemic closed thousands of businesses and led more than 20 million people to lose their jobs in March and April 2020. Most of those workers have been rehired and the economy is springing back to life.

The White House and congressional Democrats argue that the infrastructure bill and a massive social spending bill now pending on Capitol Hill would actually drive down inflation over time by helping companies transport materials more efficiently by sea, air and roads, a view some economists support. But that argument hasn't won over every voter.

Christy Smith, a Democratic former state legislator who lost narrowly to Garcia and is seeking a rematch next year, said she backed Biden's agenda, which she said would help lower inflation while also providing needed services that Garcia has voted against.

"I understand people's concerns, especially here in a district where, for instance, the price of gas is something that impacts a lot of families here who commute to greater parts of Los Angeles for work," Smith said in an interview. "On the other hand, you don't see any saber-rattling out of the Republican side about other costs that are really driving families to the brink right now, like child care, like the cost of prescription drugs and health care, like housing."

In Santa Clarita, almost 2,700 miles from the White House, residents have a mixed view of what's happening.

In interviews with about two dozen residents the week before Thanksgiving, some welcomed the passage of Biden's $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, which they said could bring needed investments to an area that got slammed during the pandemic partly because its largest employers include Princess Cruises and the Magic Mountain amusement park, companies that rely on tourists and travel. But for many, their concerns were more immediate, like why they had to pay nearly $5 for a gallon of gas, and around the same for a loaf of whole-grain bread at a local Vons supermarket.

"I actually called my wife to see if that's the right price," Richard Parker, a 63-year-old power plant worker, said after emerging from the grocery store with his cart loaded down with Thanksgiving supplies. He'd purchased two loaves of bread for his wife's holiday stuffing, settling on one higher-quality variety and one package of Wonder Bread, which was comparatively cheap at $3.59 a loaf.

"Everywhere you go it's more expensive," Parker said. Like Sañez and others, he blamed Democrats and the Biden administration, questioning whether the infrastructure law would do anything to help him in the short term, and voicing concerns over whether a daughter who lives near San Diego would have to pay more in rent.

At the same time, Parker acknowledged he was benefiting from a strong stock market that has boosted his and his wife's retirement savings. The Dow Jones industrial average has risen from 26,852 on election day in 2020 to more than 35,000 today, roughly one year later.

But he was reluctant to give Democrats any credit for that, and it didn't change his overall pessimism about the economy.

"I don't even know why it's going so good when everything else is going poorly," Parker said of the stock market, which has been buoyed by strong corporate earnings and consumer demand, among other factors.

The views expressed by residents in Santa Clarita largely align with results from a Washington Post-ABC News poll in November that found 70% of Americans pessimistic about the economy, with Biden's approval rating at new lows and voters more inclined to pick a Republican congressional candidate than a Democratic one.

These results underscore what's evident from talking to people here - that Democrats have largely failed to convince voters that the economy is actually doing pretty well. In addition to the strength of the stock market, the unemployment rate has fallen markedly, and workers can command higher wages. Yet the high prices staring residents in the face every time they leave the house seem to block out everything else.

"It looks great on paper but doesn't affect us in any way, shape or form," another local resident, John Haymond, said of the stock market. At 53, he's not about to retire from his job as a property inspector, so his retirement account doesn't help him now, he said. Instead, he's worried that with gas prices so high, he'll have to curtail family drives to Monterey, up the California coast.

"It's going to impact our ability to travel," Haymond said outside a Walmart. "Maybe some of the decisions the president is taking have taken a drastic toll."

Gas prices in California tend to be among the highest in the nation, and in November reached record highs averaging over $4.70 a gallon, an increase of almost 20 cents in one month, according to AAA. Biden has limited ability to impact the price of gas, however, and recently he called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate oil and gas companies and accused them of "anti-consumer" actions leading to higher prices.

Not all residents were complaining about higher prices. Nancy Jones, 70, a retired elementary school teacher, said she'd noticed prices "inching up," but said she hadn't really been affected - she drives a compact car and described herself as "a cheap date."

Jones, a Democrat, blamed Republicans for obstructing Biden's agenda, adding, "One of the things that disturbs me most is the divisiveness."

Another resident, Christa Lopez, said she'd just bought a turkey from Costco for $1-a-pound, which she considered a good price.

"Considering covid, I expected it to be worse," Lopez said of economic conditions generally.

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