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Illinois businessman Bruce Rauner, a top candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, demonstrated this week why Democrats are eager to use the minimum wage as a political cudgel in the 2014 midterm elections.

On Tuesday, Rauner suggested reducing the state’s $8.25-per-hour minimum wage to the national level, a $1-per-hour reduction.

“I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage. I think we’ve got to be competitive here in Illinois,” Rauner told Illinois Radio WGBZ.

Rauner’s stance sharply contrasts that of Governor Pat Quinn (D), who has said that he wants to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour. But it’s not particularly controversial in the context of the Republican primary. After all, each of his rivals for the nomination — Kirk Dillard, Dan Rutherford and Bill Brady — oppose raising the wage. Still, throughout the rest of the state, the idea of cutting the already insufficient minimum wage sparked instant outrage.

As The Chicago Sun-Times reports, the backlash to Rauner’s plan was swift and severe.

“In my 26 years in the Legislature, I’ve seen many candidates roll out anti-poverty plans, but Bruce Rauner is the only candidate to roll out a pro-poverty plan,” Democratic state representative Lou Lang said.

“He’s delusional if he thinks that the General Assembly would bow to his class warfare on low-income workers. He needs to have his delusion shaken up,” Lang added. “He needs to come to grips with the fact that the era of robber barons is over, and impoverishing workers is no longer an economic growth strategy.”

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson similarly blasted Rauner, insisting that “instead of alleviating poverty, this cruel and backwards proposal would take thousands of dollars from working people who are doing some of the hardest, most difficult jobs in our society.”

And Chicago labor leader Karen Lewis took even more direct aim at Rauner, who made a fortune in private equity, charging, “It is ironic that billionaire Rauner, who reported $53 million in earnings last year, or $7.36 per second, is calling for a reduction in the state’s minimum wage.

“While he sits back and ponders where to take his next exotic vacation or which mansion to lay his head, others are trying to survive in a climate of foreclosures, rising medical costs, and the shuttering of neighborhood schools,” she added. “Instead of pledging a war on poverty he is vowing to advance a war on poor and working-class people.”

The heated response to Rauner’s proposal was stunningly successful; within days, he was apparently scared away from it.

“I made a mistake. I was flippant and I was quick,” Rauner told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday. “I should have said, ‘Tie the Illinois minimum wage to the national wage and, in that context, with other changes in being pro-business, I support raising the national minimum wage.’ I’m OK with that.”

Rauner expanded on his new position — that after cutting the minimum wage, we should raise it — in a Tribune op-ed on Thursday, writing, “Raising the national minimum wage would raise the level in Illinois and in our neighboring states, eliminating our competitive disadvantage. I support that.”

It’s not hard to understand how Rauner went from advocating a minimum-wage cut to advocating a raise in just a few days. Polls have consistently found that Illinois voters overwhelmingly favor raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour (a recent survey from left-leaning Public Policy Polling pegged support at 58 percent). It is a very difficult political environment to be running against a measure that could lift millions out of poverty.

Increasing the minimum wage isn’t just popular in Illinois; it has broad national appeal as well. So it’s not surprising that Democrats are planning to use the issue as a centerpiece of their 2014 campaigns. And if other Republicans mirror Rauner’s apparent fear of being attacked on the issue, their strategy could prove very successful.

H/t: Think Progress

Photo: The All-Nite Images via Flickr

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