At the Winery Restaurant in Newport Beach, which has sweeping views of the harbor and a luxurious wine list, the chile-lime-rubbed mahi-mahi served with tropical fruit chutney and jasmine rice cost diners about $32 in early 2020.
Now the meal will set them back $40. Owner JC Clow says that he doesn’t enjoy raising his prices, but that rampant inflation has left him little choice.
The cost of meat and fish has gone up by nearly double digits since last summer. Even the price of coffee has climbed, and customers who buy bottles of expensive wine to pair with meals are hunting for the best price, he said.
“We have to watch every dime, every nickel, every penny,” the 57-year-old said. “You can’t just pass everything on to the guests.”
The Newport Beach restaurant is in one of four congressional districts primarily in Orange County that are expected to be among the nation’s most competitive in this year’s midterm election as Democrats fight to keep hold of the House.
In a deeply divided nation, the one thing unifying Americans is a shared sense of unease. A vast majority believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, but fewer agree on why that is — and which political party is to blame. This occasional series, America Unsettled, examines the complicated reasons behind voters’ decisions in this momentous and unpredictable midterm election.
Though Orange County’s unemployment rate remains low — about 3% as of August, the latest numbers available — inflation has Democrats here and across the nation on the defensive. In a place that was once the heart of conservatism in Southern California but is now deeply purple, much will come down to how voters — particularly those without a strong party preference — feel about the economy.
“In Orange County, it’s not going to be so much the mobilization of the MAGA people. It’s going to come down to fairly well-educated, centrist, not terribly political independent voters,” said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University. “Those are people who might be guarding their pocketbook at a time when there’s some economic stress and inflation.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in June overturning Roe vs. Wade, Democrats have been courting undecided voters with warnings about abortion restrictions, while Republican messaging has focused on issues like crime, immigration and, importantly, inflation.
Prices on goods have climbed roughly 8% in the last 12 months, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and rising costs paired with high housing prices in suburbs, particularly in Orange County, have voters feeling anxious.
A plurality of voters surveyed statewide in a September poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California cited jobs, the economy or inflation as the most important issue facing the state.
Among Republicans who said they were likely to vote in November, 31% ranked
the economy, jobs and inflation combined as the most important issue, ahead of crime, drought or immigration; 23% of Democrats and independents ranked economic issues ahead of homelessness, housing costs and the environment. In Orange County, the economy topped the list for nearly a quarter of likely voters.
Inflation is the GOP’s “best issue,” but one many voters find to be murky,
Cain said. Economists have pinned rising prices on several factors including increases in household demand and supply chain problems due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“We’ve known from lots of political science studies over decades that voters nonetheless hold public officials accountable for inflation,” Cain said.
Republicans have sought to lay the blame at the feet of Democrats.
The GOP-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC spent about $642,000 in September airing television and digital advertisements criticizing Democratic congressional candidates in Orange County districts for government spending and the economy.
It’s an argument that has traditionally served the GOP well, with voters viewing Republicans as stronger on pocketbook issues over years of polling.
Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine pushes back on that narrative, arguing that Republicans “have no plan to deal with inflation.”
As a contrast, she points to the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill passed by Democrats and signed in August by President Biden. Among other things, the legislation protects Medicare recipients from high drug prices by phasing in an annual limit for out-of-pocket costs, and establishes a $35 cap for a month’s supply of insulin. House Democrats also passed legislation in May to crack down on alleged price gouging by oil companies.
“Over 50% of current inflation pressure is coming from corporate profits rather than from increased costs of input or increased cost of wages,” said Porter, who appeared with Biden in Irvine on Friday to talk about the Inflation Reduction Act. “Democrats have really delivered both a willingness to dig in to this issue to understand where the inflation is coming from and then to address it.”
But Clow, a Republican who lives in the 47th Congressional District, believes his party is “more consistent and potentially better suited” to address inflation.
“I tend to vote for less government, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t crossed party lines. I vote for the best candidate for me and my business and my employees,” he said. “We have over 200 employees that count on our four locations for employment and to feed their families. But I see better policies for small business more consistently from candidates in the Republican Party.”
His restaurants have been able to stay afloat in part because their reservations and sales have been up over this time last year, as more diners become comfortable eating indoors and widening their social net after the isolation of the pandemic.
But he’s not hearing the same story from everyone in the industry.
“Just when you feel like you’re coming up for air after COVID … inflation rears its ugly head,” he said. “It has been a killer.”
Newport Beach, like many of the other Orange County coastal cities represented by GOP Rep. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach, was switched up in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional maps based on the U.S. Census. It will now be in the 47th Congressional District, which also includes part of Porter’s current district.
Rather than face Porter, a prolific fundraiser, Steel has opted to run in the nearby 45th District. (Members of Congress do not have to live in the district they represent.)
District 47, where Porter is battling former state lawmaker Scott Baugh, now contains the county’s affluent coastal enclaves from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach. It also stretches inland to Costa Mesa and Irvine, a diverse city that’s home to a UC campus, from which Porter is on a leave as a law professor.
Democrats have a 1.6-percentage-point edge in registered voters in the new district, 35.6% to the GOP’s 34%.
Baugh, a Republican who does not support the Inflation Reduction Act, says that to tackle inflation the government has to “stop the runaway spending that’s going on in Washington, where every progressive spending itch gets scratched.”
No-party-preference voters account for nearly 25% of the district, and while Democrats are largely concentrating on abortion restrictions, Republicans are aiming to keep independent voters focused on inflation.
That could end up working in the GOP’s favor, said Matthew Jarvis, an associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton.
“Democrats these days are largely trying to rationalize away inflation as a concern by saying it’s the natural effect of coming out of a COVID recession and supply chain hiccups,” Jarvis said. “Republicans don’t need to do such rationalization. They simply say, ‘Oh, Democrats are in charge. Blame them.’”
Chelsea Eichler, a 29-year-old independent voter from Huntington Beach, has watched the price of groceries, diapers and other necessities for her 1-year-old climb higher in recent months. It’s left her wondering how to budget for it all, she said.
Though she hasn’t decided whether Porter or Baugh will get her vote, she said inflation will be on her mind when she casts her ballot.
“It’s hard not to think about it,” she said.
Financial pressures are particularly pronounced in working-class congressional districts like the newly drawn 45th, where Steel is battling Democrat Jay Chen, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and member of the Board of Trustees for Mt. San Antonio Community College.
The inland district is centered on the Vietnamese community of Little Saigon and includes a slice of Los Angeles County. It was created during redistricting in an effort to empower Asian American voters.
Despite Democrats’ edge in registered voters there — nearly 38% to Republicans’ 32% — GOP candidates pulled in a majority of the vote in the June primary.
No-party-preference voters make up roughly a quarter of those registered in the district.
Steel has focused her campaign in part on her opposition to higher taxes. Campaign signs placed on front lawns and banners affixed to chain-link fences scattered throughout the district read, “Stop inflation, lower taxes” in large letters above Steel’s name.
Steel’s campaign did not make her available for an interview. But in a statement it provided, she blamed rising costs on “insane spending out of Washington.”
Chen argues that Republicans have not provided solutions to deal with inflation. He pointed to Steel’s vote against the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation aimed at reducing costs for consumers.
“The focus on inflation needs to be backed up with actual action, and Michelle Steel has not taken any action to bring down prices,” he said.
Though many undecided voters in the district believe some economic challenges were inevitable, they say the problems feel personal, and they want policy proposals from candidates.
For Mai Zahn, 39, inflation is “a huge issue,” and one that will influence her as she casts her ballot.
When the Garden Grove Democrat saw her expenses rise dramatically a few months ago, she asked her employer, a commercial real estate company, for a raise.
“I gave a whole presentation saying, ‘This is what I really do for you guys, and I need to get paid more,’” she said as she sat with friends at SteelCraft in Garden Grove. “And I got it.”
But she’s still concerned about rising costs, even with a bigger paycheck.
Jenny Castro, 32, a Democrat from Garden Grove, recently left a stressful job in the nonprofit sector to spend more time with her 4-year-old.
But rising rents and high prices on everyday items have her considering returning to work, she said as she watched her daughter run across a playground at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley.
“Something,” she said, “has to change.”