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Perspective: Winter is coming. That’s bad news for Democrats

The midterms arrive just as Americans in brutally cold states are realizing how much it will cost to stay warm over the next few months — to the GOP’s advantage

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“Winter Landscape,” an oil painting by German artist Elisabeth von Eicken.

“Winter Landscape,” an oil painting by German artist Elisabeth von Eicken.

Wikimedia Commons

In 1845, when Congress established the second Tuesday of November as Election Day, most homes in the U.S. were heated with wood and coal. If people were cold when they went to the polls in 1846, they wouldn’t have blamed politicians, just Mother Nature or their own failure to dress properly.

Next Tuesday, however, some Democrats may be wishing that U.S. elections were held in the summer, particularly in New England and the Midwest, where the cost of keeping warm has rightly become a campaign issue. 

Pennsylvania voters recently received a mailing in support of GOP Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz that warned, in all capital letters: “WINTER IS COMING.” The flier was an appeal to voters to hold Democrats accountable for inflation, with a strong focus on the cost of staying warm. Oz’s opponent, John Fetterman, “agrees with the policies that will raise the price of energy for everyone,” the mailing said.

Fetterman_copy.jpg

Pennsylvania voters received this mailer, distributed by the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity Action, in favor of U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and against Democrat John Fetterman.

Americans for Prosperity Action

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the state GOP is hammering Democratic gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey with radio ads that repeatedly use audio of Healey saying she blocked natural gas pipelines from coming into the state. “Maybe you can remember that when you’re putting on a second sweater or breaking out an extra blanket,” the narrator says. 

As people in New England say even when it’s not Halloween, the ad is “wicked good,” coming as it does as winter approaches and the cost of home heating fuel is more than twice what it was two years ago. (In Massachusetts, about half of homes use natural gas for heat, and another quarter heat with oil.)

As early as late summer, there were warnings that this winter would be particularly brutal — not only in temperatures and snowfall, but also for the cost of heating homes. The Providence (Rhode Island) Journal reported in September about rate-hike requests from suppliers exceeding 100%, with one company in Maine requesting a 200% increase, “the largest ever proposed by a Maine utility.”

But even people who have electric heat are facing heating bills they may not be able to pay. In New Hampshire, for example, supplier Eversource’s rates increased 112% in August, the Providence Journal reported. The company said that added $70 or more to a typical monthly bill — and again, that was in August, when no heat was needed.

In Massachusetts where I live, the cost of heating oil has more than tripled since November 2020, when I paid $1.499 a gallon to fill my tank. The cost today is $4.859 per gallon. That means that since Joe Biden was elected president, the cost of filling the average 275-gallon fuel tank has risen from about $412 to $1,336. While usage depends on the condition of a home and the amount of insulation, for some people, that tank of gas won’t even last two months during the coldest part of the year.

Making matters worse, there are signs that suppliers might not have enough heating fuel to meet demand throughout the winter. Bloomberg reported last week that the CEO of New England’s largest utility, Eversource, has written the president and asked him to prepare “emergency measures” to head off a potential heating crisis.

Eversource CEO Joseph Nolan asked the White House to consider invoking the Defense Production Act, “as well as provide a waiver of the Jones Act, a century-old law that can raise shipping costs,” Bloomberg reported. (The Jones Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports must use U.S.-made ships and American crews, and is supported by the shipping industry and labor unions.)

Bloomberg also noted, “Heating oil already is being rationed in the New York City area as the coldest months of the year approach — and diesel supplies essential to trucking are precariously low in the Northeast.”

The Biden administration seems to have awakened to the possibility of a winter of discontent. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Boston Wednesday to tout programs that help low-income families pay their energy bills and weatherize their homes, even though many of them don’t own their homes and can’t make structural changes, and the plans involve the installation of new heat pumps “and conducting deep building retrofits through insulation and electrical wiring” — by 2030, not this December.

In other words, much of what Harris trumpeted will do nothing to help the families who will suffer this winter.

To many in the U.S., the shivering of “Yankees,” as one person put it on Twitter, might not be cause for excessive alarm. All politics is local, we’ve long been told, although as Andrew Gelman wrote for FiveThirtyEight, it’s not as local as it used to be.

And, of course, the problem for Democratic candidates right now is that “local” elections determine control of the U.S. House and Senate, and inflation is not local; it’s everywhere. South Carolinians and Texans might not be worried about running out of fuel oil, but they’re deeply concerned about the price of eggs, meat and butter, and the rising interest rates on their credit cards as the holidays approach.

“The Russians aren’t the problem, COVID’s not the cause, big fossil fuel — whatever that is — isn’t responsible,” the Massachusetts GOP’s attack ad tells voters ominously. “The real reason … you’re headed for an expensive winter trying to heat your home is the policies of Democrats and Maura Healey.”

Whether that’s true or not won’t matter to many people headed to the polls. What will matter is what’s true for them: It’s gotten harder to make ends meet under this Democratic president, and there’s no relief in sight. Short of taking on another job or another loan, there’s only one thing struggling people can do: vote. Democrats may yet win in traditional strongholds like Massachusetts on Tuesday, but in less friendly places, expect voters to give them the big chill.