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The GOP thinks inflation and gas prices could be winning issues in Calif. district

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Republicans have made inroads with some Latino voters, especially in Texas. But California Latinos have not swung as much. Now, concerns over inflation and gas prices are playing big in one California congressional race. It's the state's Latino-majority 22nd district, and both candidates are running to the center. From member station KQED, Marisa Lagos reports.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: The farm town of Delano, Calif., is located about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Los Angeles. It's the kind of place many people spend their entire lives. It's already over 80 degrees on a Saturday morning. And Democrat Rudy Salas is sprinting to catch up with his float in the annual harvest parade in the center of this swing district.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUDY SALAS: My parents graduated from Delano High. I went to Fremont. Like, this is home. This is home. That's why we try to do everything that we can.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Inaudible).

SALAS: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We'll be praying for you.

SALAS: Thank you. I appreciate that.

LAGOS: Salas grew up here, and many paradegoers greet him by his first name.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

LAGOS: The GOP incumbent, Congressman David Valadao, was nowhere to be found this Saturday morning, until you turn on the TV where the attack ads against Salas are unrelenting and feature voters unhappy about the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Gas prices have almost doubled for me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think it's almost tripled.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) One hundred fifty dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) It didn't even fill it up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's not a good feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) It hurts a little more every time.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) We had a chance to lower the gas tax. Rudy Salas didn't back it.

LAGOS: This district on paper is exactly the sort of pickup opportunity Democrats salivate over. It's the birthplace of the farmworkers labor movement. Latinos make up 59% of the district, and Democrats far outnumber Republicans. But those numbers belie how Democrats have struggled in a region where oil and agriculture are king. Republican Valadao was also born and raised in this district. His family has farmed here for two generations. He's a relatively moderate Republican, one of just 10 who voted to impeach President Donald Trump after the January 6 insurrection. Meanwhile, Democrat Salas, a state assemblyman, has regularly broken with his party to vote with the oil industry. Mike Madrid is a longtime GOP consultant in California who focuses on the Latino vote.

MIKE MADRID: I do think that the most interesting thing about that district is it's probably more than any other in the country, really, is you're seeing both candidates crash to the center.

LAGOS: That's in contrast to districts where Democratic candidates are running against the oil industry and Republicans are embracing Trump and the big lie. Madrid says while the majority of Latinos will go for Salas, this is a race that will be decided by a few points. So Democrats can't afford to lose any of their base.

MADRID: I don't think there's much of a message that Valadao has there. Any Republican, their job is to find as many Hispanics on the margin to peel off and hope that the Democrats can't turn out more than they can peel off.

LAGOS: One Latino voter that the GOP has already peeled off is 56-year-old Vince Ruiz. Ruiz was helping his mom sell her art at a barbecue following the harvest parade. He feels abandoned by the Democratic Party on economic issues.

VINCE RUIZ: My mom's a Democrat, but I turned Republican 'cause their values, just regular economics, yeah, economics, jobs and the economy and then the deficit. The deficit's not even mentioned anymore.

LAGOS: But not everyone blames Democrats. Voter Peter Nevre is 70 years old and says while gas prices are important...

PETER NEVRE: No, I don't blame Rudy Salas. It's the way it is. You know, the gas prices going up because of the oil industry. That's why.

LAGOS: Nevre he says he's known Salas for years and has seen all the good work he's done in the community. For him, that's enough to earn his vote. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in Delano, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marisa Lagos