Politics & Policy

Maximum Effort

The plot to elect Democrats with minimum-wage initiatives.

If Democrats pick up a bunch of Senate seats this year, the pundits will have their explanations ready to go: Bush fatigue, war weariness, and the historic fact that midterm elections tend to favor the party that doesn’t occupy the White House.

They may also want to consider another factor: the minimum wage.

Liberal activists have placed minimum-wage initiatives on the ballot in six states this fall: Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio. Five of them — Colorado is the single exception — are home to a Senate race featuring a Republican incumbent.

Earlier this year, these five Senate races were considered potentially competitive. Nevada has since dropped away — Sen. John Ensign will cruise to victory — but the others are among the most closely watched in the country. (In my last roundup of Senate contests, I rated Missouri, Montana, and Ohio as “toss ups” and predicted a GOP win in Arizona.)

It’s no coincidence that voters in these states will have a chance to hike the minimum wage: This is part of a coordinated campaign to boost Democratic turnout. “This is our gay marriage,” said Jen Kern of ACORN, a union-funded activist group, in the New York Times earlier this year.

The theory is that referenda to boost the minimum wage will encourage low-income workers to show up on Election Day — and then vote not only to give themselves a raise, but also for Democratic candidates. “It’s a turnout device,” says Republican governor Bill Owens of Colorado, where voters will elect a new governor and participate in several competitive congressional and state races.

Turnout was the goal in Florida two years ago, when ACORN helped place a minimum-wage initiative on the ballot. The primary purpose of that effort was not to help hourly employees earn a little extra cash. According to an ACORN document called “Floridians for All: Campaign Plan for a November 2004 Minimum Wage Constitutional Amendment Initiative” — and recently obtained by NRO — the chief motive was something else.

As the document’s first sentence states: “A Florida constitutional amendment initiative to create a minimum wage of $6.15 with indexing will help defeat George W. Bush and other Republicans by increasing Democratic turnout in a close election.” Further in, it continues:

The goals of this campaign are threefold:

1. To increase voter turnout of working class, mainly Democratic voters without increasing opposition turnout;

2. To increase the power of progressive constituencies by moving a mass agenda, putting together the capacity to get on the ballot and win, and by putting our side on the offensive;

3. To deliver a wage increase to hundreds of thousands of Floridians.

This third goal almost feels like an afterthought. As it happened, it’s the only one that ACORN managed to achieve: Some 70 percent of voters approved the wage hike. Republicans, however, performed well in the Sunshine State: President Bush grabbed its electoral votes, Republican Mel Martinez captured a Senate seat held for three terms by Democrat Bob Graham, and Republicans picked up three seats in the state legislature.

Perhaps Democrats would have done even worse but for this ballot initiative. That’s apparently what liberal activists have concluded, given their strategy of continuing to push for minimum-wage hikes by referenda.

“We’re seeing these initiatives in every state that allows them and also has a tight Senate race,” says Mike Flynn of the Employment Policies Institute, a group that opposes minimum-wage hikes.

Republicans are clearly worried. In Michigan, GOP lawmakers were so desperate to keep a minimum-wage initiative off the ballot that they simply voted one through a legislature they control. Starting this month, Michigan’s minimum wage is $6.95 per hour, with additional increases scheduled for 2007 and 2008.

How this will help the sorry economy in Michigan — the only state in the country to have lost jobs over the last two years, except for hurricane-wracked Louisiana — remains unclear. For the time-being, Republicans are hoping it will take an issue away from Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm as she tries to fend off a strong challenge from businessman Dick DeVos, and also give Republican Mike Bouchard more than a prayer against Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow.

Ten other states also have approved the minimum-wage increases this year. Two Republican governors signed them: Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Three GOP governors vetoed them: Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island, Bob Ehrlich of Maryland, and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. (Ehrlich and Romney were overridden and Carcieri signed an alternative.) Delaware, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia also passed wage hikes.

Today, 23 states have set their minimum wages higher than the federal level of $5.15 per hour. A good overview may be read here.

If this year’s ballot initiatives pass, the minimum wage would rise to $6.15 per hour in Montana and Nevada, $6.50 per hour in Missouri, $6.75 per hour in Arizona, and $6.85 per hour in Colorado and Ohio. In each state, the minimum wage also would be indexed to inflation.

Minimum-wage initiatives aren’t always successful. In the 1990s, voters in Colorado and Missouri said no to them. They were apparently persuaded by traditional arguments: Minimum-wage hikes will cost entry-level jobs and give a competitive advantage to other states.

Right now, Missouri, Montana, and Nevada appear poised to approve the wage hike. The effort in Colorado is less certain. “Its popularity may fall like a rock when people realize that indexed wage increases would be written into the state constitution,” says Owens.

The proposals in Arizona and Ohio may fail. “The unions overreached,” says Flynn. Those initiatives, if approved, would force workers to keep detailed timesheets and businesses to make their payrolls public. Supporters say these steps would be necessary for enforcement. Yet they may turn off employees who don’t enjoy paperwork and privacy hawks who think their income levels aren’t anybody else’s business.

But even if voters reject both of these minimum-wage hikes, ACORN activists may not care — as long as they also reject, say, Republican senator Mike DeWine of Ohio. Then they will have accomplished their real partisan purpose, no matter how much money part-time, burger-flipping teenagers make.

John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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