FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Inflation has been pummeling Rohullah Stanikzai from all directions.
The 45-year-old father of five estimates his grocery bills have jumped about 30 percent over the past year. The rent on his three-bedroom apartment in this city halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond has more than doubled, to $2,500 a month, forcing him to launch a so-far fruitless search for a more affordable place. And gas prices that reached record highs in June have eaten into his earnings as an Uber driver, forcing him to pay $50 a day to fill up his silver Toyota Corolla.
“Right now, people are in a bad situation,” Stanikzai said one recent morning as he loaded bags of groceries into his trunk in a Walmart parking lot.
He said he voted for President Biden in 2020 but believes the Democrat should be doing more to help Americans deal with inflation, which remains near a four-decade high. Now, Stanikzai, an independent, has become so frustrated he said he’d consider casting his ballot for former president Trump if he runs in 2024 “because in Donald Trump’s time, we didn’t have these issues.”
Inflation is dominating highly competitive midterm congressional races this November like the one here for the seat held by Democrat Abigail Spanberger. The two-term centrist is one of the most vulnerable lawmakers in the country, and control of this district could be pivotal for Democrats’ hopes of retaining their slim House majority.
The economy consistently tops the list of voters’ concerns in polls, ahead of abortion rights, an increase in violent crime during the pandemic, a war in Europe, and attacks on voting rights. Biden gets poor marks on economic matters but it’s not clear how voters in this Virginia race will take out their frustration at the ballot box.
Even before 2020, the cost of living already was elevated in this district, which includes the far southern suburbs of Washington and has some of the nation’s longest commute times. But the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the huge amounts of federal relief spending have combined to send prices soaring for gas, groceries, and housing. Although the job market remains strong and inflation shows signs it has peaked, many people are struggling.
“Before I was spending $200 on groceries. Now it’s like, you see here, $370 to $400 every time,” said Yesenia Lynch, 26, of Fredericksburg, as she held up a long Walmart receipt after a recent shopping trip. A stay-at-home mother of two young girls, she’s an independent who voted for Trump in 2020 and said her family needs help from Biden.
“You know he just hired how many people for the IRS?” she said, referring to money in the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act for the short-staffed Internal Revenue Service to add about 87,000 new employees. “He hired all those people, but instead I feel, just like they gave us those stimulus checks, he should have at least given us something.”
Spanberger and her Republican opponent, Yesli Vega agreed that inflation is the most pressing issue for voters.
“We’re facing a time when people have to decide whether they’re going to pump gas or buy groceries,” said Vega, a member of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a former law enforcement officer who still serves as an auxiliary sheriff’s deputy. “I do believe that we’re in the condition we are right now because of President Biden’s failed policies and representatives like Abigail Spanberger enabling him every step of the way.”
Inflation worries help make the race a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes campaigns and elections. Republicans held the seat for nearly 50 years before Spanberger, a former CIA officer, narrowly won in 2018 and again two years ago.
A centrist Democrat, Spanberger said she’s been trying to address inflation by proposing legislation dealing with the baby formula shortage and the lack of competition in the meatpacking industry.
She is heartened that gas prices have been falling steadily since setting records two months ago and the annual consumer price index eased in July to a still historically high 8.5 percent annual rate. And like other Democratic candidates, Spanberger’s eager to tout the Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed this month. The law includes provisions to lower the costs of prescription drugs, though analysts said it will have little immediate impact on inflation and make only a small difference longer term.
“I have certainly found that people want to talk about gas prices, they want to talk about grocery prices, they want to talk about the challenges they’re facing,” Spanberger said after a recent Fredericksburg event highlighting the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted last year that she supported.
“I’m acknowledging the problem and trying to fix it,” she said. “Your other option is somebody who’s just trying to cast blame for the problem.”
The once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries made Spanberger’s district more Democratic this year by adding communities closer to Washington and removing Republican-leaning areas farther south around Richmond, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
But the nation’s economic troubles offset the redistricting gains for Spanberger, keeping the race highly competitive this fall. Spanberger’s centrist approach and national security background are a good fit for the district, and abortion rights supporters like her should get a boost from voter backlash after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Farnsworth said. She should also benefit from facing Vega, who is staunchly conservative and inaccurately theorized at a campaign event this spring that women might not get pregnant if they’re raped, Farnsworth said.
But the economy “is always going to be top of mind” for voters, he said.
“No doubt about it, the economic situation is not helpful to any Democrat anywhere,” Farnsworth said. “Tell me what the unemployment rate is and what the inflation rate is on Nov. 1, and I’ll tell you who’s going to win.”
Deon Stewart of the Fredericksburg Regional Food Bank hears about people’s money problems every day amid a recent surge in customers lining up for his organization’s mobile food pantry truck.
“The cost of living, gas, credit card bills are stacking up,” he said as volunteers loaded the last of about 70 cars with boxes of produce, canned food, dry goods, and bags of frozen meat in the parking lot of a local medical clinic one recent afternoon.
Donna Collins, 79, a retired nurse from Fredericksburg, was one of the people helping out. A widow on a fixed income, she said she’s managing OK despite the higher prices and inflation might be a factor in her vote. But Collins is also concerned about gun violence and climate change.
“I don’t want a Republican in there again,” she said of the local congressional seat. “I certainly don’t want another Republican president like we had before.”
Americans usually blame presidents for any major problems, the reason their parties almost always lose seats in the first midterm elections. But voters often feel better about their own representative than the president or Congress overall. A Gallup poll released in June found that 53 percent of registered voters said their local representative deserved to be reelected, but just 21 percent said most members of Congress did and one-third said Biden deserved a second term.
With the election still more than two months away, many voters haven’t focused on it yet. Lynch, the young mother, said she’s not sure whom she’ll vote for. And despite his problems with Biden, Uber driver Stanikzai said he continues to support Spanberger. He recently e-mailed her about inflation and believes she’s working on the problem.
Kevin Bradshaw, 62, and Melody Bradshaw, 57, who live just outside of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County, are independents and undecided.
“Inflation will be a big issue,” Kevin Bradshaw said after he and his wife finished shopping at the Fredericksburg Walmart. It’s one of three near their home they routinely visit, along with two other grocery stores, searching for the best deals for themselves and their 13-year-old granddaughter, whom they’re raising.
Melody Bradshaw said Biden should be doing more to reduce prices. But her husband, who is semi-retired and drives a public transit bus part time, countered that the president is limited because of Congress. His vote in November will depend on what he sees from Spanberger and Vega about how they would tackle the nation’s problems, particularly inflation, he said.
“I’m not Democrat or Republican,” he said. “The person who impresses me the most, that’s about the way it is.”