WASHINGTON — Republicans believe there’s one terrifying word that will deliver them the House and potentially the Senate this fall: Inflation.
They’ve moved the issue to the very center of their floor speeches, political ads, and social media posts as they seek to pin the rising prices of gas and other goods on President Joe Biden and his party.
Now, some prominent Democrats are warning that their party has to get just as loud about the problem instead of trying to dodge it.
“Democrats need to hit the inflation issue head-on, and we need to draw a sharp distinction between the Democrats’ approach and that of the Republicans,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in an interview last week. “I think we need to talk about this more.”
The subject is admittedly difficult to avoid. Prices are rising faster than they have in 40 years, according to a key price index tracked by the Commerce Department; they rose 6.6 percent higher in March than they were during the same month in 2021. Economists primarily blame global rises in energy costs and a worldwide supply chain crunch, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from seizing on rising prices at the grocery store and the gas pump at every chance — and even offering Biden-themed gas canisters to voters.
A study by Quorum, a public affairs software company, found that between the beginning of the year and mid-April, congressional Republicans’ social media posts and official statements mentioned inflation six times as much as Democrats’. Representatives Elise Stefanik of New York and Kevin McCarthy of California — who set messaging priorities for their Republican caucus — brought it up the most, 148 times and 120 times, respectively.
Democrats were far less likely to discuss inflation, the same analysis found, with some notable exceptions. Warren had mentioned inflation 83 times — the most of all congressional Democrats.
It may seem like political folly to remind voters of an issue that is driving pessimism about the economy and dragging down Biden’s approval ratings. But side-stepping a problem that is top-of-mind for so many voters is not an option, several Democrats said.
“A lot of Democrats think you can hide from it, but you can’t hide,” said Celinda Lake, who was one of the lead pollsters for Biden’s presidential campaign.
Lake described Democrats as divided between those who want to talk about solutions for inflation and those who believe the party is better off touting its accomplishments instead, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the pandemic relief bill.
“A lot of Democrats mistakenly think that if you talk about a problem, you own that problem,” Lake said. But polling shows people already are blaming Democrats for inflation. “We own the problem, we need to own the solution.”
The Biden administration initially dismissed the threat of inflation. When prices began to creep up last summer, the president himself insisted it wouldn’t last.
Since then, however, prices have continued to rise around the world, a dynamic that has been exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and left leaders from Washington to London to Paris grappling with how to keep them down and contain the hit to their own popularity.
Democrats facing tough reelection battles in swing districts have largely not made countering inflation a core part of their message — perhaps out of fear they will be blamed for the problem. Most of the 10 Democrats who most frequently mentioned inflation, according to the Quorum study, are in safe seats; one exception is Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas.
Davids features a graphic about lowering costs at the top of her official website. She has pushed Biden to release oil reserves and suspend the federal gas tax in an effort to lower fuel prices in the short term.
“I feel like the most important thing I can do is talk about what’s going on,” Davids said in an interview. “We can’t address it if we’re not talking about it.”
In New Hampshire, Senator Maggie Hassan — a Democrat facing reelection in a narrowly divided state — on Monday launched a TV ad highlighting her support for similar measures.
“I am taking on members of my own party to push a gas tax holiday and I am pushing Joe Biden to release more of our oil reserves,” she says in the ad.
Warren is among a group of progressive Democrats who have seized on the issue of inflation to push their agenda of weakening corporate power and expanding the social safety net. Warren wants to empower the Federal Trade Commission to stop price gouging and highlighted a plan for universal child care — once a staple of her unsuccessful presidential run — as another way to lower costs for families.
“I talk about it, because this is a place where we could step in and make a real difference,” Warren said. “Republicans, Democrats have two very different approaches to inflation. And we need to talk about those differences and put them in front of the American voter.”
Warren’s advice to go on the offense on inflation is part of a larger public pressure campaign she is waging, including a New York Times op-ed and a flurry of recent Sunday show appearances, calling on the White House and Democrats to deliver more legislatively before November or face crushing defeat in the midterms. It marks a departure from her behind-the-scenes influence on the Biden administration during the president’s first year in office.
Her warnings ring true to some Democratic pollsters.
Stanley Greenberg, whose studies of swing voters have attained legendary status in Democratic circles, said Democrats have been hurt as pandemic benefits — such as extended unemployment insurance and the child tax credit — have expired, while the party failed to pass a suite of new social policies.
“Democrats need to be talking about the things that they have done and are doing to help families and how much Republicans are stopping them,” Greenberg said. “Obviously, it’s critical that there be a further package.”
Marcela Mulholland, the political director with the progressive group Data for Progress, said Democrats appear to be “intimidated” by inflation. It is, after all, a global and complex issue that no president or political party can easily fix.
Her group’s own polling has found that messages about lowering prices, shoring up the supply chain, and holding corporations accountable are among the strongest inflation-related messages for voters. Blaming Republicans and COVID and downplaying the issue were less effective, she said.
“Democrats are in power and Republicans are certainly not going to miss the opportunity to blame Biden for inflation,” Mulholland said. “But that being said, Democrats still need to put up a fight here.”
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill disputed the idea that they are not talking about inflation, saying they used phrases like “rising costs” that were not captured by the analysis. Over the next few weeks, Democrats are planning on introducing proposals to target rising prices, including those of prescription drugs, according to Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland. “There are a number of issues where I think we’re going to be asking our Republican colleagues if they’ll join us in helping to reduce cost pressures,” he said.
And what do Republicans need to do to keep turning inflation to their political advantage?
“Nothing,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, “beyond what they’re already doing.”
Globe staff reporter Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.