Gas prices are down, providing a boon for Democrats in November. But food prices remain sky-high, giving Republicans an opening to keep inflation a top-of-mind issue in the midterms.
The price of food at the grocery store is expected to increase by up to 11 percent this year with the cost of beef, poultry, milk, eggs and fruit driving the surge. Prices could shoot even higher with droughts affecting crops and a potential rail workers strike halting shipments needed for both food and crop production.
The government's latest Consumer Price Index report released Tuesday shows overall food prices continued to rise, by 0.8 percent in August. That's slightly down from the month before, but food prices were up 11.4 percent for the year, the largest yearly increase since 1979. Overall, the inflation measure remained high, rising by 0.1 percent in August, although the price of gas continued to decrease.
High food prices affect nearly every household and have proven to be a major hindrance to efforts by the White House and Democrats to shake off inflation-induced political woes. But Republicans have stepped up their attempts to use the issue to hammer the administration and congressional Democrats.
That message has been loud and clear in recent ad campaigns put out by Republican candidates and PACs. A recent commercial for Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, features the congressman grilling miniature burgers, which he calls “Biden burgers.”
Attack ads targeting Democrats from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a House Republican-endorsed PAC, feature backdrops of people shopping at grocery stores and fiddling with their wallets.
“Families are already paying nearly $500 more a month for gas and groceries just to keep up,” the ad says.
Calvin Moore, communications director for the fund, said, “rising costs and the general poor state of the economy have been central to a lot of our ads this cycle.”
Republicans don’t intend to let up. The issue could be crucial for the GOP come November as it looks to retake a majority in the House.
“It’s an easy case for the GOP to make to American families that are paying more out of their pockets for groceries than they were a year ago,” said Ron Bonjean, the cofounder of political strategy firm Rokk Solutions who has served as the top spokesman for Republican congressional leaders. “Voters know how they are spending their paychecks and they have to make tougher choices on what to buy at the store.”
Another prominent conservative strategist, Frank Luntz, said food messaging is easy and effective.
“The reason why the rising cost of food is so impactful politically is because it's so impactful personally,” Luntz said. “Everyone in every community is paying more, and no one thinks they should.”
One senior Republican Senate aide, who asked to remain anonymous for this report, said the continuation of high food prices despite the White House’s messaging that it’s tackling inflation makes for an effective message for Republicans.
"That's what the message is really, is that you're paying more because of the economic policies of the White House," the aide said.
Recent polling shows inflation concerns are still very much on voters' minds.
The White House and Democrats have been fighting back, primarily by touting the Inflation Reduction Act, a climate, tax and health care bill that they say will lower costs for everyday Americans.
A senior White House official said the administration is taking other action to drop food costs. The official pointed to initiatives to encourage more crop production, the announcement of a major fertilizer production project in Texas that could alleviate high input prices that are being passed on to consumers, ocean shipping reform to clear costly backlogs in the food supply chain, and cracking down on consolidation in the meatpacking industry.
Economists are uncertain that the IRA or any of the other provisions will have an effect on rising food costs.
“The majority of those federal programs and funds [in the IRA] are targeted at conservation, you know, potentially increasing conservation efforts around the country,” said Glynn Tonsor, an agricultural economics professor at Kansas State University. “That's not the same as increasing production, and that's relevant for the food price discussion because I haven't seen anything that’s really about increasing production volume. [And] that would be one mechanism, obviously, to reduce food prices if we increased the volume produced.”
Tonsor added that efforts to break up market consolidation could lower prices, but only "if things get nudged towards more competitive behavior without losing supply-side economies of scale ... [and] I think that's far from certain in most categories."
Volume, economists say, is trending to become smaller in U.S. agriculture nationwide — which could put a further squeeze on consumer prices. Drought, higher costs for inputs like livestock feed and fertilizer and an avian influenza ripping through flocks of poultry are working in tandem to cut yields.
Compounding the situation, the agricultural labor market is shorthanded both in the fields and in the production sector, adding additional pressure to prices. Consumer demand is also still high — buoying high costs further.
David Anderson, a livestock and food marketing professor at Texas A&M University, said the drought and feedstock prices are pushing ranchers to decrease their herds — which could choke supply. Less supply will mean higher pressure on increased costs.
Though the combination of high food costs and consumer frustration seems like a slam dunk for Republican messaging, taking on food can be fraught with pitfalls. Take Mehmet Oz’s recent gaffe, when an April video resurfaced of the Pennsylvania Senate GOP candidate highlighting the high cost of crudité ingredients. Oz was publicly skewered for being out of touch, and his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, raised bushels of money off of it.
Amy Sentementes, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University who focuses on food politics, said the incident shows how food can be an albatross if it’s approached the wrong way.
“Everybody needs food, so it seems like a low-risk category for these politicians. So if they say something generic, like prices at the grocery store continue to rise despite gas prices falling, that's pretty safe,” Sentementes said. “But if they start picking specific foods, if they start picking certain grocery stores in certain regions, that's where we start to see more division taking place, because not everybody buys the same food for many different reasons.”
For Republicans, keeping things general is part of the plan. The Senate aide said that’s because food inflation is affecting everything across grocery aisles.
“You need to always look at why it resonates and why people are upset about their groceries costing so much,” the aide said. “It doesn't have to be personalized to anybody because it's really just impacting everybody.”
But keeping things simple could be tested as the holidays — Thanksgiving in particular — loom.
Turkeys have been hit particularly hard by the avian flu, Anderson said, which could be devastating as consumers flock to grocery stores to purchase their Thanksgiving bird.
“We're coming up on the holidays,” the senior Republican aide said. “That's not your average ‘I'm having some people over for crudité,’ that's your annual Thanksgiving national tradition.”