Before Democrats spent a single dollar or sent out one press release in 2014, they started at a disadvantage — as they do in every midterm election — thanks to anticipated low turnout among young people and minorities who don't have a presidential contest to get excited about. The party's candidates are trying to dull this built-in edge for the GOP with smarter tools and get-out-the-vote strategies, but in some states they may get a bigger assist by riding the coattails not of a party headliner but an issue: referenda to increase the statewide minimum wage.
Efforts are underway in at least eight states to put a minimum-wage hike before voters in November, according to the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, including four states with competitive governor and Senate elections. In addition to using the issue to draw a contrast with Republicans, Democrats expect that providing people with an opportunity to vote directly on the popular measure will help mobilize their base and possibly provide the marginal boost that can make all the difference in a tight race.
"Minimum-wage ballot measures are certainly not a silver bullet but definitely are helpful in turning out the vote," said a Washington strategist involved in Senate races. "And our biggest challenge in this cycle is not the ACA or dealing with the Koch brothers, but turnout." A strategist working on gubernatorial campaigns agreed: "It'll be one part of why voters turn out; it's not the only reason, but it will help."
This isn't a new tactic, but it is a successful one. Raising the minimum wage is overwhelming popular, polls show, and it even gains support from some lower-income, non-tea-party Republicans. "It's just about the most popular economic policy there is," said Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project. "There's a lot of polling showing that it energizes low-income and drop-off voters."
These ballot measures have been credited with helping push Democrats over the finish line in close races in 2004 and 2006, and with helping the party keep control of state legislatures as well.
Perhaps the best example is Sen. Claire McCaskill's 2006 squeaker over Republican Jim Talent in Missouri. She made the minimum wage a central issue of her campaign and helped provide the momentum to put the issue on the ballot — and was rewarded by increased turnout in urban Democratic areas of the state. In St. Louis County, for instance, McCaskill bested Talent by about 46,000 votes, a huge jump over 2002, the last midterm, when Democrat Jean Carnahan edged Talent by 15,000 votes. African-American turnout was up 8 points over 2002 statewide, even as black turnout nationally increased only marginally. "At the end of the day, it probably helped her more than the much more ballyhooed stem-cell initiative," political scientist Marvin Overby of the University of Missouri (Columbia) told the Associated Press a few days after the election.
That year, the minimum wage also appeared on the ballot in other key states such as Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio. The referenda were a part of what one longtime Democratic operative familiar with the effort called Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's "master plan" to flip the Senate. The operative compared it to Republican strategist Karl Rove's use of state ballot measures to ban gay marriage in 2004 as a means to boost social-conservative turnout.
The plan worked. The ballot measures passed in every state (often by huge margins, such as Missouri's 76 percent), Democrats took control of Congress, and the next year raised the federal minimum wage.
This time, however, the party has no master plan. Efforts are mostly being driven from the bottom up, with some help from national groups, such as the AFL-CIO. "People are late coming to this but now see that this is a crucial issue for working people," said Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the labor federation. "The working-class vote is going to be important in the midterm, and this is an issue that really differentiates the Democrats from the Republicans."
Podhorzer credits a minimum-wage ballot measure in New Jersey with helping to keep the Legislature blue despite a landslide victory for Republican Gov. Chris Christie in last year's election. Christie had vetoed an increase in the minimum wage, and worked hard to get a Legislature that would be friendlier to his policies, but he was rebuffed on both counts in November. "One of the remarkable things about the New Jersey election is that Christie won 61-39; minimum wage won 61-39," Podhorzer said.
Certainly, there's only so much benefit the ballot measures can provide this year, with so few referenda on the docket. Plus, in Alaska, it probably won't help Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in his tough reelection bid because the state is asking voters to consider referenda on the primary, rather than general-election, ballot.
Even so, strategists are expecting marginal boosts in Michigan and Arkansas, which each have heated Senate and gubernatorial elections, and in South Dakota, where a Senate seat is in play. And even in states without competitive statewide races, like California, House candidates could gain.
Besides, the main purpose is to give people a raise, not to elect more Democrats, supporters say. "Our view is that first and foremost this is good policy," said Podhorzer, "and that it just happens to be good politics as well."