Democratic Party leaders, bruised by months of attacks on the new health care program, have found an issue they believe can lift their fortunes both locally and nationally in 2014: an increase in the minimum wage. The effort to take advantage of growing populism among voters in both parties is being coordinated by officials from the White House, labor unions and liberal advocacy groups. In a series of strategy meetings and conference calls among them in recent weeks, they have focused on two levels: an effort to raise the federal minimum wage, which will be pushed by President Obama and congressional leaders, and a campaign to place state-level minimum wage proposals on the ballot in states with hotly contested congressional races.
The midterm elections are still roughly 10 months away, but the parties' campaign strategies are clearly taking shape. Republicans don't mind telegraphing their punches: they're going to complain about the Affordable Care Act, which by Election Day, will have expanded insurance access to several million Americans.
Democrats, meanwhile, have a pocketbook issue in mind, which they'll emphasize throughout 2014.
The benefit of an issue like this is that it has no downsides. As a matter of public policy, increasing the minimum wage would boost consumers' purchasing power and help lift many of the working poor out of poverty conditions. As a matter of politics, polls show overwhelming support for an increase, even among Republicans, making this a potent wedge issue.
But the electoral angle is actually even broader. Whereas Republicans put bans on same-sex marriage on statewide ballots a decade ago to boost conservative turnout, progressive activists are "working to put minimum-wage increases on the ballot next year in places like Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota" -- which just so happen to be home to key U.S. Senate races that will help dictate which party controls the chamber in 2015.
The political science is murky when it comes to a causal relationship, but Democrats haven't forgotten the fact that in 2006, minimum-wage increases were on the ballot in Missouri, Ohio, and Montana, and Democrats won Senate races in each of those states that year.
Congressional Republicans could help take the wind from the initiative's sails by approving an increase to the federal minimum wage, but that's obviously not going to happen -- GOP opposition to the idea is simply too strong. Indeed, there's a growing number of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill urging that the minimum wage be lowered to zero.
As for the GOP's policy argument -- that an increase undermines employment opportunities by making labor more expensive -- Noam Schieber published a compelling rejoinder overnight.