The Republican Effort to Repeal California’s Gas Tax May Be Running on Fumes

Proposition 6 was meant to fire up conservative voters in the midterms, but Democrats have largely sidestepped the issue.

Mother Jones illustration; Getty

When a PAC supporting Mimi Walters, the Republican incumbent running to keep her seat in California’s 25th district, released an ad in August claiming that her opponent, Democrat Katie Porter, “refuses to oppose Sacramento’s gas tax hike,” the move was in line with a bigger party strategy. To rile up Republican voters, the ad was meant to create a clear association between Porter’s candidacy and Sacramento Democrats who voted to raise money for road repairs through a tax increase on gas.

But Porter wants to be clear: she opposes the state’s increased tax on gas.

Porter responded with her own ad, titled “Straight Up Lie,” in which she tells viewers that she “won’t be afraid to take on leaders of both political parties to do what’s right for Orange County taxpayers” as she fills the tank of her minivan. Walters hit back, accusing her of “flip-flopping positions,” though Porter says her stance hasn’t changed. 

The Porter-Walters race is where the battle over the price hike, known as Proposition 6 on the California ballot, is most loudly seeping into Congressional politics. California Republicans, hoping to keep a firm hold on the seats they occupy in the deeply blue state, are working to repeal a gas tax passed by Democrats in the state legislature last year—a signature accomplishment of outgoing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown that was created to funnel $52 billion into state road projects over 10 years. Proposition 6 would repeal the tax, and Republican incumbents are trying to create messaging that will turn out angry, overtaxed voters who will also vote Republican. 

But that’s not quite working out as planned, as competitive Congressional Democrats have simply distanced themselves from the state-level initiative.

Proposition 6 would require the state to obtain voter approval for any increases in vehicle taxes. The measure would work retroactively, however, nullifying the 2017 increase, and its additional higher vehicle registration fees. Proponents of repeal argue that the state has more than enough money to fund road repairs without reaching into taxpayer pockets—it’s simply a matter of inefficient government spending. Just after the gas tax took effect in November, it proved decidedly unpopular. A majority of voters expressed frustration with the gas tax and said given the opportunity, they would vote to repeal it, according to a USC/LA Times poll that month.

“It’s a regressive tax that hits the working class more than the affluent. Democrats are on the wrong side and they know they are,” said Jason Roe, a Republican strategist based in San Diego who has worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Marco Rubio. “The folks lining up in opposition to the repeal have to outspend in order to win.”

Carl DeMaio, a radio host and one-time Republican San Diego city councilman, spearheaded the push to get the repeal on the ballot. While his main argument against the tax is that it hurts working-class families, DeMaio also recognizes the repeal’s potential to be a get-out-the-vote measure that benefits vulnerable Republicans. The repeal camp collected over 940,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, well over the 585,407 minimum.

“My hope is that the gas tax repeal will provide a template on how the GOP can be relevant again in California,” DeMaio said in June

That possibility has not been lost on Beltway Republicans, who are desperately trying to stop a completely blue takeover of California and keep Democrats from taking the seven districts in California where Hillary Clinton outperformed Donald Trump in 2016—all of which have proven prime targets in the midterms. While Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist, cautioned that even in a blue wave, those districts would be hard to flip—ever since they were redrawn ahead of the 2012 election, no Democrat has won elected office at the state or national level in five of those seven districts—some of those districts have become increasingly Democratic based on voter registration, and a contentious issue like the gas tax could be the deciding factor.

“If you are running as the Democrat you could certainly come to a reasonable conclusion that your stance on the gas tax could make a difference in a really close race,” he noted. “In a really, really close election, that might cost you the seat.”

It’s no surprise then that the repeal effort has drawn national attention and money. The fight has garnered more than half a million dollars from Congressional Republicans in Washington, DC, including Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Whip Steve Scalise, and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who also hails from California.  

Beyond party interests, labor, business, and public safety groups formed an unlikely alliance to keep the gas tax in place to improve roads in the state. In total, more than $32 million has been raised to oppose repeal, while just under $5 million was raised to support the repeal. 

The repeal camp garnered an early victory in June, when Democratic state senator Josh Newman was unseated after a targeted campaign by Republicans that was built on Newman’s support of the gas tax. The ouster cost California Democrats their supermajority in the state senate and served as a shot across the bow for the coming election season.

Building off that momentum, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC that raises money to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives and is closely affiliated with Rep. Ryan, reportedly paid between $550,000 and $750,000 for Walters’ attack ad on Porter. The group also ran a similar one about Democrat Katie Hill, who is challenging incumbent Steve Knight. It describes her as “backed by Sacramento liberals who raised the gas tax… hurting middle-class families, devastating small businesses.” But in an hour-long debate back in September where Hill was asked about the tax, she quickly brushed off the question, saying “I don’t know what ideas they’re referring to, but I think the fact that I’m being attacked on gas, on a state legislative issue, shows you there’s not a whole lot to be attacking.” 

Though Hill has largely steered clear of the issue, for others, Sragow said the tax has become a litmus test, where “candidates don’t have the option of fudging on this, they’re expected to take a position,” even if those candidates have no control over the tax that was passed through a state legislature—not Congress.

But Porter isn’t the only candidate in her party choosing to oppose the tax—she’s joined by other Democrats in tight congressional races, including Josh Harder (CA-10) and Ammar Campa-Najjar (CA-50). Harder has even managed to flip the script on his opponent, Republican incumbent Jeff Denham, for not coming out in opposition to the tax, writing in a Turlock Journal op-ed, “the gas tax is not the way to fix [local infrastructure] problems, and it illustrates the clear choice between me and Jeff Denham when it comes to our core values.” Much of Denham’s campaign contributions come from the transportation, railroad, and trucking lobbies, which oppose repealing the tax. In a debate between the two in early October, Denham said he opposed the gas tax, but it was not a position he was initially vocal on.  

A Porter campaign spokesman described the ballot measure as an effort funded by the Republicans to “create a wedge issue in California to keep control of the House.” Porter has said the tax would be a high cost to voters in her district without yielding clear returns. “I support real infrastructure investments in California’s 45th Congressional District but the gas tax does nothing for our community, which is why I oppose it. I oppose any higher gas taxes, especially after Mimi Walters and Donald Trump just raised taxes on middle-class Orange County families,” she said. 

The gas tax is also playing outin the governor’s race. In a debate aired on KQED, Republican candidate John Cox criticized Democrat Gavin Newsom, for “digging into the pockets of people already paying high taxes” instead of trying to enforce efficient spending at the state’s transportation agency. Newsom dismissed the idea that the state would be able to find the amount of money the tax would generate simply by making Caltrans more efficient. “John’s plan is to make things worse,” Newsom said. “He talks about the illusory notion of efficiency. The entire payroll at CalTrans is $2.86 billion. You can eliminate every single position and still struggle to find the money you are taking away from improving our roads.” 

How much energy the gas tax repeal effort could generate in a few weeks likely comes down to how the message is framed, rather than the position of an individual candidate. Bob Shrum, who directs the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, said good messaging on the gas tax can’t be limited to a yes or no on the tax itself: supporters of the tax have to frame it as a question of infrastructure, Shrum said, while opponents must attack it as evidence of state waste and rising costs for the middle class. Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the No on 6 campaign, said that the anti-repeal effort was focused on localizing the message to how voters could lose essential infrastructure projects. “There are no partisan potholes, only dangerous potholes,” Swanson says. “We’re not focused on whatever political game [DeMaio] is playing with our roads.”

That difference is clear in the polling, which reflects a narrow margin where results vary widely based on how the question is worded. A USC/LA Times survey of registered voters in May found that 51 percent of those surveyed favored repeal. However, a more recent poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 52 percent actually opposed the measure to repeal the gas tax. The USC poll highlighted the 12-cent-per-gallon increase, while the PPIC question framed the repeal as a loss of $5.1 billion in funding for the state’s infrastructure projects.* Only 9 percent of voters in the USC poll said they had not heard enough about the measure to make a decision, indicating that the aggressive messaging on the issue has, at the very least, kept the gas tax on voters’ minds. 

And even then, support for Prop 6 might not break down along party lines. Shrum noted that people can vote to repeal the tax while also voting for a Democrat—the tax is unpopular with groups like Hispanics, for example, that traditionally lean left. 

As the midterms approach, the Republican strategy to use the gas tax to bolster turnout seems to be running out of steam. The Republican National Committee is funding ads attacking the tax that will play on television screens at gas stations in six competitive districts to revive enthusiasm. In a state that is so overwhelmingly blue, some have called the repeal measure a Hail Mary by a party that “doesn’t have a lot going for them right now,” as Shrum puts it. But if the GOP manages to hold on to any of the seats Democrats are eyeing, the gas tax is likely to be a part of the picture.

“These are races that are going to be decided by one or two percent,” he said. “It’s not impossible that the gas tax issue could tip one or two of those races because it turns out more voters.”

This article has been corrected to accurately state the projected economic loss should the repeal pass.