WASHINGTON – 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 in recent weeks, the parties have focused on two fronts: an effort to raise the federal minimum wage, which President Obama and congressional leaders will push, and a campaign to place state-level minimum-wage proposals on the ballot in states with hotly contested congressional races.
With polls showing widespread support for an increase in the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage among both Republican and Democratic voters, top Democrats see not only a wedge issue that they hope will place Republican candidates in a difficult position but also a tool with which to enlarge the electorate in a nonpresidential election, when turnout among minorities and youths typically drops off.
“It puts Republicans on the wrong side of an important value issue when it comes to fairness,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser. “You can make a very strong case that this will be a helpful issue for Democrats in 2014. But the goal here is to actually get it done. That’s why the president put it on the agenda.”
Top Republicans assert that a wage increase would dampen the economic recovery and indicated after Obama mentioned the issue in this year’s State of the Union speech that they had no intention of bringing a minimum-wage increase to a vote in the House, which they control.
“Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?” said House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
In the capital, Obama and congressional Democrats are supporting legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2015. Obama is planning a series of speeches across the country focused on improving wages for workers, aides said, many of them timed to coincide with key minimum-wage votes in Congress. Income inequality is also likely to play a prominent role in his State of the Union address next month.
At the same time, Democratic campaign officials and liberal activists are working to put minimum-wage increases on the ballot next year in places like Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota. The hope is to stoke Democratic turnout in conservative-leaning states where the party’s Senate candidates have been put on the defensive by the mishandled rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
This month, top aides to Obama – including economic advisers Jason Furman and Gene B. Sperling and Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez – and the legislative affairs office convened a meeting at the White House to discuss the minimum wage. The gathering included representatives from Obama’s political arm, Organizing for America, as well as unions and progressive groups like Americans United for Change and the National Employment Law Project.
According to a CBS News poll last month, 64 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans said they supported increasing the minimum wage.