Can Democrats Make 2014 About the Minimum Wage?

Shifting away from Obamacare is smart politics, but it won’t be easy to lure GOP voters with a low-wages argument.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: Protesters rally outside of a Wendy's in support of raising fast food wages from $7.25 per hour to $15.00 per hour on December 5, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. A growing number of fast food workers in the United States have been staging protests outside restaurants, calling for a raise in wages, claiming it is impossible to live resonably while earning minimum wage. 
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Beth Reinhard
Dec. 9, 2013, midnight

A prom­in­ent lib­er­al think tank dubbed it a “polit­ic­al gold­mine.” The New Re­pub­lic called it “the is­sue that could take down Mitch Mc­Con­nell.” The is­sue is rais­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um wage, and Pres­id­ent Obama’s sweep­ing speech on in­come in­equal­ity has thrust it to the cen­ter of his party’s plat­form in 2014.

Demo­crats in­creas­ingly view cham­pi­on­ing the pay of hourly work­ers as a can’t-lose is­sue that revs up their base of lib­er­al, black, and His­pan­ic voters. Per­haps more im­port­ant, it also res­on­ates with the white, blue-col­lar work­ers who over­whelm­ingly side with Re­pub­lic­ans.

Since minor­ity par­ti­cip­a­tion tapers off in midterm elec­tions, as­sail­ing Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion to hik­ing the min­im­um wage could be a more po­tent Demo­crat­ic wedge than im­mig­ra­tion re­form, par­tic­u­larly in red states with com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate cam­paigns, such as West Vir­gin­ia, Ken­tucky, Arkan­sas, North Car­o­lina, and Louisi­ana. 

Fo­cus­ing on the widen­ing gap between the rich and the poor also gives Demo­crats a chance to change the sub­ject from the in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar new health care law. That won’t be easy in the races that will de­term­ine wheth­er Demo­crats con­tin­ue to con­trol the Sen­ate. 

“It’s a tried-and-tested part of the lib­er­al play­book to use the polit­ics of class war­fare, and we don’t an­ti­cip­ate it to be suc­cess­ful,” said Jesse Benton, a top ad­viser to Mc­Con­nell, the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er of the Sen­ate who’s in a tough reelec­tion fight in Ken­tucky. “It’s di­vis­ive and not pro­duct­ive.”

Talk­ing about the min­im­um wage with work­ers scrap­ing to get by in the east­ern slice of West Vir­gin­ia — where sup­port for Pres­id­ent Obama is scarce — shows both the chal­lenge and the op­por­tun­ity Demo­crats face in tak­ing up the is­sue.

“I’m barely mak­ing it, and I make $9 an hour,” said Den­ise Baker, a 54-year-old who drives a van de­liv­er­ing meals to the eld­erly.

She said people earn­ing min­im­um wage can’t sup­port their fam­il­ies. But asked if she would feel more fa­vor­ably to­ward the Demo­crat­ic Party for push­ing for an in­crease in the min­im­um wage, she shook her head. “They’re too far out there. They’re too lib­er­al,” she said. “Some­times you have to just bite the bul­let to get where you need to be. That’s what Ron­ald Re­agan did.”

Leah Gar­cia, a 54-year-old who has been out of work for more than a year while her hus­band works two jobs to help them stay afloat, is also res­ist­ant to sup­port­ing Demo­crats. Still, she didn’t close the door.

“If Demo­crats are talk­ing about help­ing work­ing people and what they need to sur­vive, I would start listen­ing,” she said.

Demo­crats are eager to take ad­vant­age of the open­ing that Gar­cia and oth­er low-in­come Re­pub­lic­an voters are of­fer­ing on the is­sue. A Gal­lup Poll last month pegged sup­port for rais­ing the min­im­um wage at 76 per­cent and found ma­jor­ity sup­port across the board, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­ans (58 per­cent), whites (72 per­cent) and South­ern­ers (80 per­cent).

Ruy Teixeira, a seni­or fel­low at the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, a lib­er­al think tank that hos­ted Obama’s speech on in­come in­equal­ity, said, “It’s al­most like polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice not to push the min­im­um wage at this time.”

No won­der Mc­Con­nell’s lead­ing Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger picked up the torch in her in­tro­duct­ory video in Ju­ly, de­clar­ing she would hold Mc­Con­nell ac­count­able “for op­pos­ing rais­ing the min­im­um wage over and over again while you be­came a mul­ti­mil­lion­aire in pub­lic of­fice.”

Obama has thrown his sup­port be­hind a bill by Sen­ate Demo­crats that would raise the min­im­um wage from $7.25 to $10.10 in three stages, and then tie it to in­fla­tion.

The is­sue has taken on a high­er pro­file since fast-food em­ploy­ees staged walkouts over the sum­mer protest­ing the ab­sence of a min­im­um wage in­crease in four years. The protests have con­tin­ued, and last week there were walkouts in dozens of cit­ies, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton.

Fed­er­al in­ac­tion also spurred law­makers in Cali­for­nia, New York, Con­necti­c­ut, and Rhode Is­land to pass min­im­um-wage in­creases this year, as did New Jer­sey voters — over the ob­jec­tions of pop­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Chris Christie. Mi­chael Pod­horzer, polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of the AFL-CIO, said sup­port for the bal­lot ref­er­en­dum helped some Demo­crat­ic le­gis­lat­ive can­did­ates and in­creased turnout among minor­it­ies and voters earn­ing less than $50,000.

Pe­ti­tion drives to put the min­im­um wage on the bal­lot in 2014 are un­der­way in South Dakota, Alaska, Arkan­sas, Mas­sachu­setts, and New Mex­ico, po­ten­tially of­fer­ing Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in those states the op­por­tun­ity to or­gan­ize around a pop­u­lar is­sue.

“Politi­cians who take on the min­im­um wage help char­ac­ter­ize their val­ues for voters and draw dis­tinc­tions we think are help­ful,” Pod­horzer said. “In these eco­nom­ic times, there’s a strong sense out there that the bot­tom is too low.”

While it re­mains to be seen wheth­er Demo­crat­ic sup­port for boost­ing the min­im­um wage can over­come dis­trust of the party on a range of oth­er is­sues in Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing states, the pres­id­ent served up a power­ful re­join­der that will likely be echoed by Demo­crats up and down the bal­lot in 2014.

“If Re­pub­lic­ans have con­crete plans that will ac­tu­ally re­duce in­equal­ity, build the middle class, provide more lad­ders of op­por­tun­ity to the poor, let’s hear them,” he said. “If you don’t think we should raise the min­im­um wage, let’s hear your idea to in­crease people’s earn­ings.”


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