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Republicans make 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 automaking states. Republican allies in the petroleum industry have spent millions on ads that say President Joe Biden’s tax credit for EV buyers will cost Americans their freedom.

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

“Can you imagine having a cord running out to the street?” Cagle said as he cleaned his minivan at a car wash near a General Motors transmission plant that later this year is set to begin building electric drive units.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and others say Biden’s push for EVs is unfair for consumers and amounts to government overreach, and ultimately will be a liability for Democrats. Trump even squeezed in an attack at the top of his remarks Friday after 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 20 voters in the pivotal industrial heartlands of Ohio and Michigan reveal a more complicated dynamic among people who may decide the winner of November’s presidential and Senate elections.

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The Toledo area is itself a crossroads for the issue. It’s an automotive city making the shift from the internal combustion engine to electric power, like neighboring Michigan, a presidential swing state that is synonymous with the auto industry.

Toledo has not only produced Jeeps since World War II, but it is also home to oil refineries that supply gasoline across the Midwest and to parts manufacturers for gas and diesel vehicles.

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

“You cannot be shoving EVs down our throat,” said Joe Dempsey of Oregon, Ohio, who drives a Toyota gas-electric hybrid that does not require charging. “Let the American people decide if it’s going to happen.”

VULNERABLE SENATE DEMOCRAT IS A TARGET

The issue has put some Democrats in a tricky spot — perhaps none more so than Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, one of the Republicans’ top targets as the GOP looks to win Senate control.

He is having to navigate a changing auto industry and his support for the president’s environmental goals in a state that Trump carried twice by 8 percentage points.

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

Republicans, long unable to crack Brown’s blue-collar backing, see linking him to Biden’s sweeping 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which created tax credits for EV buyers, as one way to do it in an election year.

Brown voted for the act, aimed at fighting climate change in part by providing a $7,500 tax credit for new EV sales to spur steps toward the president’s goal of making EVs 50 percent of all new vehicle sales by 2030. Republicans and their allies routinely refer to the policy incorrectly as a government mandate.

But Brown has pledged to oppose a rule change this summer proposed by Biden to allow EVs that are built in the United States but include Chinese-made components to qualify for the credit.

“This will allow China to infiltrate the American auto supply chain, at American taxpayers’ expense,” 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-worker mantra, has little to worry about in maintaining his party’s base. But he appears to be aware of the risks of being seen as allying too strongly with Biden, who is unpopular in Ohio, said former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, a fellow Democrat.

“Sherrod doesn’t have to worry about Democrats. They love him,” Ryan said. “The question is, can he make up the middle? I think he can. And if he is seen as disagreeing with the left, it’s only good for him.”

BIDEN, DEMOCRATS MAKE THEIR CASE

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

“We’ve got to incentivize innovation. There’s no question,” Whitmer said in an interview before Trump visited the state in May, where he railed against EVs. “We cannot let Chinese companies be the only ones innovating around electric vehicles because then they will eat our lunch.”

Biden’s campaign notes that the president’s policies are aimed at moving EV jobs, many of which were left in China during the Trump administration, into the United States.

“Donald Trump would rather lie about President Biden’s policies than face his own betrayals to the middle class,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “President Biden wants the future of auto manufacturing 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 — around 3 in 10 or less — see a benefit from electric vehicles for themselves personally, the economy or the U.S. auto industry.

John Hiskey, a Vietnam veteran from Toledo, said he thinks EVs are a great idea and he doubts the industry would be this far along without a push from the government. But he has no interest in getting one until he can visit his grandkids without making multiple stops and taking time to charge the vehicle.

“I don’t want to wait a half-hour unless they start putting them in bars,” said Hiskey, adding that his vote will not be influenced by which party or politician backs EVs.

Others said the vehicles are cost-prohibitive, even with the tax credit.

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

Although the petroleum manufacturers represent a fraction of what the two major parties’ political action committees are spending in battleground states, it dwarfs the counterprogramming on the part of pro-EV and environmental groups.

Environmental Defense Action Fund and a related group have spent a little more than $772,000 on ads, according to AdImpact, and little of it is targeted in key presidential or Senate states.

Climate Power, a strategic communication group promoting Biden’s climate reduction goals, has committed to spending $80 million on promoting the administration’s measures, including on advertising in battleground states. The group declined to specify how much it expects to spend on advertising and noted that its efforts will also include voter outreach on an array of Biden measures, including promoting EVs.

Missing is one unifying call for Americans to embrace the technology, akin to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 moon landing goal within the decade, said veteran Democratic strategist Joel Benenson, who was a pollster and senior adviser to Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.

“No one’s telling an inspiring story for EVs. So, how do you develop that story and what it’s going to mean for America going forward?” Benenson said. “That could be a powerful narrative.”

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