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Republicans are making Biden’s EV push an election year issue as Democrats take a more nuanced approach

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Donald Trump says the Biden administration’s policy to promote electric vehicles is a “radical plan” that would kill the economy in automaker states. Republican allies in the petroleum industry have spent millions on ads saying President Joe Biden’s tax break for EV buyers will cost Americans their freedom.

For voters this election year like Jim Cagle, a retired Jeep assembly worker from Toledo, Ohio, concerns about all-electric vehicles are more practical, such as how he would charge them. Cagle parks his car on the street because he doesn’t have a garage.

“Can you imagine a cord running to the street?” Cagle said as he cleaned his minivan at a car wash near a General Motors transmission plant, which will build electric drive units later this year.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and others say Biden’s push for electric cars is unfair to consumers and amounts to government overreach, and will ultimately be a liability for Democrats. Trump even added an attack at the top of his remarks Friday following his criminal conviction in New York.

Democrats have been less vocal and more nuanced, advocating Biden’s climate reduction goals while promoting homegrown technology over competition from China.

But interviews with about two dozen voters in the crucial industrial heartlands of Ohio and Michigan reveal a more complicated dynamic among the people who could decide the winner of November’s presidential and Senate elections.

The Toledo region itself is a crossroads for this issue. It’s a car city that’s transitioning from internal combustion to electric power, much like neighboring Michigan, a presidential swing state synonymous with the auto industry.

In addition to producing Jeeps since World War II, Toledo is also home to oil refineries that supply gasoline to the Midwest and parts manufacturers for gasoline and diesel vehicles.

It’s here where people like Cagle say issues like the cost of gas and groceries will be more important than electric cars when they vote. But during interviews with people across the political spectrum, many were skeptical of the vehicles and critical of the Democratic president’s tax credits.

“You can’t shove electric cars down our throats,” said Joe Dempsey of Oregon, Ohio, who drives a Toyota gas-electric hybrid that doesn’t need to be charged. “Let the American people decide whether it will happen.”

VULNERABLE SENATE DEMOCRAT IS A TARGET

The issue has put a number of Democrats in a tough spot — perhaps none more so than Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, one of Republicans’ top targets as the GOP seeks to gain control of the Senate.

He must deal with a changing auto industry and his support for the president’s environmental goals in a state that Trump twice carried by 8 percentage points.

A petroleum industry group has spent about $16 million on advertising criticizing Biden’s policy to promote electric cars, and that total includes about $1.5 million in Ohio criticizing Brown for his support, according to AdImpact and the reporting from the group. In addition to Ohio, the ads are airing in six other swing states and Montana, a Republican Party-leaning state where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is seeking re-election.

Republicans, who have long been unable to break Brown’s support, see tying him to Biden’s sweeping 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which created tax credits for EV buyers, as a way to do so in an election year to do.

Brown voted in favor of the bill, which aims in part to combat climate change by providing a $7,500 tax credit for the sale of new EVs, taking steps toward the president’s goal of 50 percent of all electric vehicles by 2030 new car sales of electric cars. Republicans and their allies routinely refer to the policy incorrectly as a government mandate.

But Brown has pledged to oppose a rule change proposed by Biden this summer to allow electric cars built in the United States but containing Chinese-made components to qualify for the honor.

“This will allow China to infiltrate the U.S. auto supply chain at the expense of the American taxpayer,” Brown said in a statement in May. “American tax dollars should support American manufacturing and American workers – not enrich Chinese companies.”

Brown, a progressive with a pro-labor mantra, has little to worry about retaining his party’s base. But he appears to be aware of the risks of being seen as too strong an ally of Biden, who is unpopular in Ohio, said former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a fellow Democrat.

“Sherrod doesn’t have to worry about the Democrats. They love him,” Ryan said. “The question is: can he form the middle bracket? I think he can. And if he is seen to disagree with the left, that can only be a good thing for him.”

Biden, the Democrats are making their case

Biden has visited EV factories and grinned as he test drove the new electric Cadillac at the Detroit Auto Show. His top surrogate in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has advocated for Biden’s policies, but with an eye toward protecting the industry critical to her state.

“We must stimulate innovation. There’s no doubt about that,” Whitmer said in an interview before Trump visited the state in May, where he railed against electric cars. “We can’t let Chinese companies be the only ones innovating in electric vehicles, because then they will eat our lunch.”

Biden’s campaign notes that the president’s policy is to move EV jobs, many of which were left in China during the Trump administration, to the United States.

“Donald Trump would rather lie about President Biden’s policies than face his own betrayal of the middle class,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “President Biden wants the future of auto manufacturing to be built in America, not China.”

According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in April, relatively small shares of Americans — about 3 in 10 or fewer — see a benefit from electric vehicles for themselves, the economy or the American automobile -industry.

John Hiskey, a Vietnam veteran from Toledo, said he thinks electric cars are a great idea and doubts the industry would be as far along without government pressure. But he has no interest in buying one until he can visit his grandchildren without making multiple stops and taking the time to charge the vehicle.

“I don’t want to wait half an hour unless they put them in bars,” Hiskey said, adding that his vote will not be influenced by which party or politician supports the electric cars.

Others said the vehicles are unaffordable, even with the tax credit.

“How can they afford electric vehicles when it’s hard to live?” said Dru Wilson, 21, who attends college outside Toledo.

Although oil producers represent a fraction of what the political action committees of the two major parties spend in the battleground states, the counterprogramming on the part of pro-EV and environmental groups pales in comparison.

The Environmental Defense Action Fund and a related group have spent just over $772,000 on ads, according to AdImpact, and little of that has been targeted at key presidential or Senate states.

Climate Power, a strategic communications group promoting Biden’s climate reduction goals, has committed to spending $80 million to promote the administration’s actions, including advertising in battleground states. The group declined to specify how much it expects to spend on advertising, noting that its efforts will also include outreach to voters for a range of Biden measures, including promoting electric cars.

What’s missing is a unifying call for Americans to embrace the technology, similar to President John F. Kennedy’s goal of a moon landing within a decade, said veteran Democratic strategist Joel Benenson, a pollster and senior adviser to the U.S. presidential campaigns. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“No one is telling an inspiring story for electric vehicles. So, how do you develop that story and what it will mean for America in the future?” Benenson said. “That could be a powerful story.”

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Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writers Josh Boak and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux contributed from Washington.

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