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Democratic House challengers think they have found a clever way to harness voter anger over high gasoline prices: Sell it for less.
But Republicans defending their seats in districts where Democrats have staged gas giveaways say the move is tantamount to vote buying.
Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.) asked the U.S. attorney in Louisville to investigate whether Democrat Mike Weaver’s recent cheap gas event in Elizabethtown, Ky., violated the criminal code.
Weaver, a state Representative, filled motorists’ gas tanks for $1.20 per gallon, the price gasoline cost when Lewis was first elected to Congress in 1994. His campaign reimbursed the service station for the difference in cost, as gas is selling for about $3 per gallon nationally.
It is a federal crime to “make an expenditure to any person, either to vote or withhold his vote, or to vote for or against any candidate,” according to the statute.
Lewis thinks the Weaver event and others like it rise to that level.
“Obviously Mr. Lewis’ people raise some interesting questions, and it will be interesting to see what the U.S. attorney determines,” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Democrats called the allegations of wrongdoing ridiculous.
“It’s clear that the NRCC talking points have been to question the legality of it,” said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The purpose of the event is to deliver the message to voters that under the Republican Congress, gas prices have skyrocketed while oil company CEOs have gotten filthy rich and American families have become increasingly unable to afford to fill up their tank.”
Bob Bauer, an election law attorney for Perkins Coie, which represents the DCCC, said GOP complaints against the cheap-gas events are baseless.
“They’re going to find that this argument quickly runs out of gas and it’s no surprise that they’d go to great lengths to keep gas prices up,” Bauer said. “The gas is available to whomever wishes to purchase it at the subsidized sale price for a short time ... there’s no condition attached.”
Furthermore, he said, there is no way to even track whether the people who buy the discounted gas are registered to vote in the district in which the candidate is running, whether they will vote at all or for whom they ultimately will vote.
“I’m confident that this is a perfectly legal exercise,” Bauer said.
At least three other Democratic challengers have held similar events in recent weeks, including former Rep. Baron Hill, who is trying to win back his southeastern Indiana seat from Rep. Mike Sodrel (R); Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, who is trying to unseat Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio); and teacher Larry Kissell, who is hopes to upend Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) in the Tar Heel State’s 8th district. Kissell was the first of the candidates to stage the promotion.
“We thought it was a very successful event and it highlighted the pain that Hoosier families are feeling every time they fill up at the pump,” said Abby Curran, Hill’s spokeswoman.
Hill, who charged $1.80 for a gallon of gas — which is what it cost when he was still in office two years ago — consulted his campaign attorney before holding last week’s event.