State Minimum Wage Pushes Could Boost Red State Dems

Proponents of a minimum wage increase see an unlikely beneficiary: red state Senate Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns.

A handful of states will be pushing ballot initiatives to boost the statewide minimum wage in 2014; three of those are where Democrats are looking to hold onto Senate seats: Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota.

“It’s only through the ballot that you can pass a minimum wage increase in a Republican-controlled state,” National Employment Law Project Policy Analyst Jack Temple told TPM.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for a national minimum wage hike and Democrats have already begun making a wage increase a key part of Democratic candidates’ 2014 platforms. But Congress passing a minimum wage increase still seems unlikely. A Democratic leadership aide told TPM that the Senate is “very unlikely” to vote on a wage hike before 2013 ends.

Supporters of a minimum wage increase regularly point to polling showing broad support for a minimum wage hike, even among Republicans. Roughly a month ago, a Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans supported a minimum wage increase. That poll found a majority of Republicans (58 percent), Independents (76 percent) and Democrats (91 percent) back a minimum wage hike.

“Republican voters support raising the minimum wage by 60 percent in the latest national poll that we have on the issue whereas Republican elected officials don’t hesitate to oppose it,” Temple said. “So the gap between Republicans elected and their constituents is the space between a legislative campaign and a ballot campaign.”

Political scientist Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at both the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation, cautioned to TPM that the minimum wage isn’t an issue that would let Democrats sweep the 2014 elections “but it’s nevertheless an issue with almost all upside for Democrats, including in red/purple state/districts.”

“I think both Senate and House candidates will benefit and absolutely endangered Dems would be wise to put this one in their arsenal,” Teixeira wrote in an email to TPM. “Of course, even strenuous advocacy of raising the minimum wage will not suddenly persuade a majority of white working class Republicans to support progressive candidates. But even modest white working class defections would go a long way, even — or perhaps especially — in red states.”

Support is somewhat mixed among the Democrats running in the Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota. Rick Weiland (D), who’s running for outgoing Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D) seat in South Dakota, has been an outspoken proponent of the ballot initiative in South Dakota to hike the minimum wage. The initiative there would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.50 per hour as well as raise the minimum wage for tipped workers to half of the full minimum wage. The South Dakota initiative would also index the minimum wage to inflation.

“It will be a part of my overall theme of economic fairness,” Weiland told TPM in an interview. Weiland’s campaign has strongly encouraged supporters to back the South Dakota ballot initiative.

By contrast, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) has been a bit quieter on where he stands on the minimum wage. He has not taken a public stance on the new ballot initiative in his state (which would increase the raise from $7.25 to $8.50). But Pryor has weighed in on the issue and even attacked Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who’s challenging Pryor, on a wage hike.

Similarly, in Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) hasn’t focused very closely on the ballot initiative in his state, which aims to increase the minimum wage from $7.75 to $9.75 and keep the tipped minimum wage at 100 percent of the actual minimum wage. But a Begich aide noted to TPM that the senator from Alaska co-sponsored the minimum wage bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA).

“The minimum wage initiative in Alaska is still gathering signatures and its a discussion folks are continuing to have,” the aide said. “This is an issue that the Senator will continue to follow closely while also balancing the needs/interests of small businesses.”

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