Soaring gas and grocery prices are crimping Lakeville airline pilot Brandon Schrader's efforts to save, he said at a farmers market, making inflation one of his top priorities at the polls this year.
Not far away, Jenni Loebel limited her purchases to strawberries and honey sticks, but the Rosemount stay-at-home mom said she is focused on a far more important issue for her — the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that ended federal abortion protections.
"You can raise all the prices in the world, but you take our freedom away, it's a bigger deal than anything," Loebel said.
The top issues roiling the coming battle for Congress played out last week at a Lakeville farmers market in the heart of the Second Congressional District, which is emerging this year as one of the most hard-fought political races in Minnesota.
The battle for the district represents a microcosm of the congressional races playing out across the country, with both sides debating the most-polarizing issues of the moment, including inflation, gas prices, abortion and the Jan. 6 hearings in Washington.
The district is becoming Minnesota's last pure battleground, with Democratic U.S. Rep Angie Craig facing a rematch against Republican Tyler Kistner.
Kistner, a Marine Corps veteran, acknowledged that the hard times are bad for Americans but helping GOP campaigns.
"You don't want a family to have to sit there at the kitchen table and have the conversation of, 'How do we budget week by week just to make sure we can put groceries on the table?' … But this is something every Republican is benefiting from," he said.
Craig opened a virtual town hall Monday by saying she was dismayed by the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade. Then she walked through bills she's worked on to tackle supply chain problems and help people afford food and gas.
In a recent interview, Craig said that national frustration "with the economy and the prices they're experiencing at the grocery store and the gas pump certainly is challenging for anyone seeking re-election right now. On the other hand, I don't hear a single actual solution coming from my GOP opponent."
Conservative groups are already running advertisements attacking Craig on the economy, and Republicans say a relentless focus on the issue will help them win her seat.
"It's the No. 1 issue," said U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who represents Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District and chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. "And I think it's going to have the biggest impact on the midterms, whether it's Minnesota or anywhere else."
These same debates already have surfaced in the August special election for the First Congressional District in southern Minnesota. Jeff Ettinger, the Democratic nominee and former Hormel Foods CEO, acknowledged the economy "is a mixed bag" and said his "background speaks well to the economic challenges we're facing."
His GOP opponent Brad Finstad, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official, said the economic issues have happened on the Democrats' watch "whether they like it or not."
"There's been a lack of leadership and a lack of direction and a lack of solutions coming from their side of the aisle right now," he said.
But a researcher who studies pricing said he thinks Democrats might have an opening as the Jan. 6 hearings continue to produce revelations about the conduct of former President Donald Trump and as the abortion ruling continues to ripple across the country.
"If Democrats pick up the cudgels and go on the attack, they can change the nature of the conversation," said Akshay Rao, a professor and expert in gas prices and cultural issues in marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.
Nevertheless, the economic picture compounds an already challenging environment for Democrats, given the losses the incumbent president's party tends to see in midterm elections. The U.S. Department of Commerce said Thursday that an inflation measure rose 6.3% from the year before. The sustained sticker shock has Democrats playing defense as they emphasize that inflation is a global phenomenon.
That puts Republicans in position to pick up congressional and state seats as they lay blame for inflation's 40-year high on President Joe Biden, the Democratic-led Congress and DFL Gov. Tim Walz.
The White House has gone on the offensive and released a fact sheet in June touting measures in Minnesota that "demonstrate robust economic progress" during Biden's presidency, including the state's unemployment rate and real gross domestic product.
But those factors aren't felt by everyone.
Rock Helgeson of Lakeville and his wife, Jane, are retired and on a fixed income. They have been more careful about what they buy and save money by cooking at home. Rock Helgeson, who has voted for Republicans most of his life, said he hopes high prices motivate more people to turn out in support of GOP candidates.
"Democrats are really pushing things and spending money like they've got it," he said.
Jane Helgeson added that Biden's "hands are sort of tied" on the economy, but she said the country needs a president who is "a little more aggressive."
Katrina Waltz of Elko New Market used to drive an hour to teach in Maple Grove. But the expense of rising gas prices was adding up and a reason she decided to take a job closer to home for the coming school year.
But like Loebel, she said abortion rights will be the issue she'll be thinking about when she casts her ballot this year.
"That would be my biggest — especially with what just happened — my biggest impact on who I would look at voting for," she said.
And then, there are the persuadable voters who can tip a race either way.
Schrader, the pilot, said he voted for Kistner in 2020. But he's been happy with Craig's work in Congress, which he characterized as "a little more balanced between parties."
"As we get closer to the election time, I'll be looking at it a little more heavily," he said. And Schrader said he'll be watching to see what Craig does to "continue to drive down costs."