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.”