Republican activists in Garden Grove
Republican activists seek drivers’ attention as they work to register voters to their party at a gas station in Garden Grove. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A half-dozen mostly young Republican activists stood gamely outside of a Chevron station at a busy Orange County intersection, jumping up and down and holding a big sign reading, “Gas too high? Register Republican.”

The demonstration in Garden Grove this week drew beeps of support, and was successful in getting a few motorists to pull over to talk about gas prices.

The Republican Party says the Southern California voter registration effort is one of many it is holding outside gas stations across the country to woo frustrated independents and voters who supported President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 elections.

Republicans are widely expected to gain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and perhaps even in the Senate in midterm congressional elections in November. Voter displeasure at high gas prices might help get them there.

In addition to turning out its deeply conservative base, the party wants to win back moderates who fled the dramatic turns and right-wing nationalism of former President Donald Trump, as well as gain new supporters.

But the response at the busy intersection in Garden Grove, which is in a highly competitive Republican-leaning congressional district, shows it is not an easy trick to pull off.

Four people stopped to fill out forms at the group’s table. One said he was homeless but could use his parents’ address. Three were already registered as Republicans, while one was an independent.

“The gas is so high because of Biden and the Biden administration,” said Ernie Nueva, 69, who pulled over when he saw the group.

Nueva says it now costs $100 to fill the tank on his Nissan Titan V8 truck – up from $60 before the latest spike drove fuel prices to nearly $7 per gallon in parts of California. A lifelong Democrat, he voted twice for Trump and last year changed his voter registration to Republican.

David Wakefield also blames Biden for high gas prices, saying that the United States needs to become more self-sufficient, producing more fuel. He is considering canceling a planned driving vacation later this month to see friends and family in Northern California, Idaho and Utah.

But he also is already a reliable Republican voter.

“It’s a great issue in the short run, but it’s not clear how it’s going to hold up in November,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at the Cal State Los Angeles.

In recent years, U.S. voters have been driven to the polls more by cultural and social division, rather than other public policy issues, Sonenshein said. While the high gas prices are certainly not good for Democrats, they may not prove powerful enough to drive turnout or lead voters to switch parties.

The cost of fuel might also come back down before the election, weakening Republicans’ argument, he said.

Economists say prices started to rise as travel and economic activity picked up after pandemic lockdowns eased, both in the United States and worldwide — leading to fears of tighter global oil supply.

Those trends worsened when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shook world petroleum markets. But the party in power generally is blamed for economic woes, and Biden and the Democrats are already becoming the focus of anger by some consumers.

‘It’s Complicated’

The Republican National Committee has conducted similar registration drives at service stations in California and other states, including Arizona, North Carolina and Florida.

RNC spokesperson Mike Joyce said the registration drives at gas stations had been successful, drawing in voters of all political stripes who are angry about gasoline prices.

The RNC did not give data showing how many new voters had signed up during these events, except to say that the number was in the thousands.”Majorities are won in the margins and with every new voter registered, we are one step closer to finally retiring Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for good,” said RNC Spokesperson Emma Vaughn, referring to the Democratic U.S. House speaker and Senate majority leader.

At the Chevron in Orange County, scores of motorists loudly honked their support for the tiny group during the nearly four-hour demonstration.

David Duprat, 38, a passenger in a car that was gassing up, feels every penny of the increase in gas prices. He drives to the construction sites where he works and lives on a tight budget while also trying to help his mother.

He doesn’t blame Biden for high gas prices, but overall, he feels that Democratic policies have contributed to the high cost of living in California. He has never voted before, but plans to do so in November — as a Republican.

“I really, really want to make sure my voice is heard,” he said.

Motorist Benjamin Kohn, a liberal Democrat, is also feeling the rise in gas prices. But he thinks both parties are pushing black-and-white interpretations of events that are more nuanced.

He has no intention of switching sides over gas prices, and on his way out of the Chevron he honked his horn like many of the other passing motorists. Then he stuck his head out the window of his minivan.

“It’s complicated,” he yelled, and drove away.