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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Democrats suffered a series of disastrous defeats on election night, decisively losing their Senate majority and falling short in several gubernatorial races in which they hoped to defeat Republican incumbents. But there was one silver lining for liberals: Tuesday’s elections proved, once again, that the minimum wage is a winning issue.

Initiatives to raise the minimum wage appeared on the ballot in four reliably Republican states. In all four, they passed easily.

Even as Alaskans appeared to boot Democratic senator Mark Begich out of office — he has declined to concede the race — they still overwhelmingly voted to raise their state’s minimum wage to $9.75 per hour. Tellingly, although his future colleagues in the Senate have steadfastly opposed any efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, Republican senator-elect Dan Sullivan announced in September that he would support the state initiative. This was a flip-flop from his position in the Republican primaries, and probably had something to do with polls showing the measure’s overwhelming popularity in the Last Frontier.

Similarly, Republican Tom Cotton’s easy victory over Democratic senator Mark Pryor didn’t stop Arkansans from boosting their minimum wage to $8.50 per hour. Like Sullivan, Cotton decided not to oppose the overwhelmingly popular measure. Although he voted against raising the federal minimum wage as a congressman, he announced in September that he would support the state hike “as a citizen.”

In South Dakota, Republican Mike Rounds easily defeated Democrat Rick Weiland and Independent Larry Pressler. But voters still raised their state’s minimum wage to $8.50 per hour. Rounds opposed the measure, while his opponents supported it.

And in Nebraska, Republican Ben Sasse defeated Democrat Dave Domina in a landslide, even as voters raised the state’s minimum wage to $9 per hour. Although Sasse opposed the measure, he avoided discussing the issue on the campaign trail.

More than half of the states in the nation now have minimum wages higher than the federal level.

Clearly, even in red states, there is broad support for one of the key planks of the Democratic economic agenda. But, just as obviously, it was not a determining factor in how midterm voters cast their ballots. This presents an opportunity for congressional Republicans.

The next round of Senate campaigns will take place in a far more liberal battleground than Tuesday’s elections did — and, if history is a guide, they will feature a more liberal electorate. This will put blue-state Republicans like Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) in jeopardy. One easy way for them to blunt the economic attacks sure to come their way on the campaign trail would be joining with Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage.

While the House of Representatives has refused to consider a minimum-wage hike in the past, they may have a different attitude when the bill is coming from a Republican-controlled Senate. After all, they supposedly want to prove that they can govern. And, as Tuesday’s elections prove, conservative voters are unlikely to punish them for giving working families a boost.

Photo: 401(K) 2012 via Flickr

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