Will the Minimum Wage Be the Central Issue of 2014 Midterms?

(Source: New York Daily News)

The federal minimum wage could be the central issue of the 2014 midterms.

There are obviously other issues in play: gun control, immigration, and revelations of domestic spying by the National Security Agency, just to name three. But jobs and the economy still rank high in opinion polls across party affiliation. That’s why some Democrats see the minimum wage—currently $7.25 an hour—as an issue that redraws the battle lines of the 2012 election in which President Barack Obama’s vision of middle-class growth clashed with Mitt Romney’s views on personal responsibility.

Robert Creamer, a partner at Democratic consulting firm Democracy Partners, believes an unchanged  minimum wage could become emblematic of Republicans’ “turning their backs” on Americans—not only low-wage workers, but on the 71 percent of Americans who support an elevation of the wage floor.

“The Republicans have basically teed it up for us,” Creamer told the Spectator. “We have the moral high ground and the economic high ground. If there isn’t an increase before the elections, we know it will become a mobilizing force for progressive voters.”

Some strategists say the minimum wage could redraw the battle lines of the 2012 election when Obama’s vision of middle-class growth clashed with Mitt Romney’s emphasis on personal responsibility.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a February interview with the Washington Post that the 2014 strategy would be similar to the strategy for taking over the House in 2006. “Just keep it simple,” she said. “We want to raise the minimum wage, and [Republicans] don’t. Why not?”

Jobs or wages?
The federal minimum wage received national coverage after walkouts last month in seven states by workers at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and KFC. The momentum stemmed from a July 24 National Day of Action in which activists staged nationwide protests marking the fourth year without a raise to the minimum. On August 8, Organizing for Action, which twice helped elect Obama, sent an email to supporters asking them to add their names in support.

But while it’s true that the ranks of low-wage workers have ballooned since the start of Great Recession in 2008, conservatives don’t believe the story is that simple. The issue is jobs, not the minimum wage.

“Minimum wage itself is unlikely to be a major issue,” Dan Holler, communications director of Heritage Action for America, told the Spectator. “However, the issue of employee wages may very well play a role. Obamacare is causing a reduction in hours worked at the same time the Senate-passed illegal immigrants amnesty would create downward pressure on wages.”

An immigration reform bill, pushed at great political risk by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, has passed the Senate but has since languished in the House. Obamacare has in fact affected the number of hours worked by low-wage workers. Employers are trying to avoid paying health care benefits for full-time workers. But the Affordable Care Act does not affect the amount workers earn per hour.

As for immigration reform, the impact remains unclear. Some research argues that immigration reform would boost consumer power and may even have a “small positive impact” on the average wage, but some conservatives maintain that the minimum wage is just not an effective electoral tool.

Holler went on to allude that the blame for generally low wages would be shouldered more by Democrats—who have a president in office and are passing such legislation—than by Republicans.

The role of Obamacare
While Republicans and conservatives believe Obamacare will muddy the distinction between jobs and wages, Democrats are betting that voters know the difference. The GOP made Affordable Care Act into an icon of out-of-control government in 2010, Creamer said, and the strategy paid off. He believes that this time the minimum wage, which is below its historical value, is “our Obamacare issue.”

“We have three simple messages,” Creamer said. “One, if you’re only making the minimum wage, it’s impossible for you to make a living. This is a moral issue. Two, increasing the wage will stimulate our economy by boosting consumer power. This is an economic issue. And third, increasing the minimum wage will cut the amount of government benefits. If the Republicans are infuriated by big government, then why are they opposed to eliminating what essentially are subsidies to big business?”

Obamacare inspired people to vote against it. Does the minimum wage inspire people to vote for it? No, said Mike Tanner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “While polls show that large majorities favor an increase, almost no one votes on the issue,” he told the Spectator.

Tanner may have been referring to the intensity-of-opinion theory, which holds that voters vote not on a candidate that best matches their overall views, but only on issues important to them. A minimum wage increase, in general, may be popularly supported, but few people attach such intense feelings to it—especially compared to social issues such as abortion or gay marriage—that they end up not voting for the candidate that supports an increase.

Jen Kern, of advocacy group Working Families, disagreed. She pointed to the buildup to the 2006 midterm elections when Republicans preempted a Democratic attack by passing an increase to the federal minimum wage three months before the election. The increase was the first in a decade.

Lessons of history
Prior to the 2006 midterms, six states had minimum-wage ballot initiatives on tap. In the Missouri senatorial race, Democrat Claire McCaskill beat Republican Jim Talent by 2.3 percent of the popular vote. Talent opposed the minimum wage ballot initiative and some say that that’s why he lost. They also saw the minimum wage as a crucial campaign point for Democrat Jon Tester in Montana, who beat then-incumbent Senator Conrad Burns by less than a percentage point.

“These two races were crucial in flipping the Senate,” Kern said. “The democrats would not have won the majority if we had lost either race. These candidates succeeded because they came out and identified themselves, clearly, as supporters of the minimum wage.”

Democrats are banking on history repeating itself in 2014 in low-wage working-class districts such as the first and second in Arkansas, the 13th in Illinois, the 11th in New York, and the 21st in California. Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, is in danger of being ousted by challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes through repeated minimum wage attacks. Kentucky’s minimum wage is $7.25, the federal minimum, and the state has a substantial organized labor force.

While the issue “speaks for itself” when placed to a vote, Kern is under no illusion that it will be easy keeping the issue in the spotlight. Recent fast-food restaurant walkouts have opened up a wellspring of public attention—and have acted like a “test run”—but maintaining the momentum is another ball game. Kern, who has run multiple minimum-wage campaigns, believes it all comes down to holding politicians accountable and “letting people know where their candidates stand.”

“What’s critical is continued press for upcoming state minimum-wage battles,” she said.

New Jersey, Illinois and Maryland are on the cusp of increasing their minimum-wage laws. Labor groups like Service Employees International Union are starting to ramp up their lobbying while other organizations, including Kern’s, is already engaged in the ground game in states like Maryland. And plans were announced this week for another round of walkouts on August 29.

Whether the increase will occur before the 2014 elections remains to be seen. Obama has formally backed pushing up the wage to $9, while the Miller-Harkin bill in Congress proposes $10.10. Creamer said it’s do or die for the Republicans, which is precisely where he wants them to be.

“Either pass it now or endure massive political pain in November.”

Geng Ngarmboonanant is an assistant editor at The Washington Spectator.