Should Democrats Focus Their Midterm Election Campaigns on Raising the Minimum Wage?

By Joseph Owen, MA student of 20th and 21st Century Literature at University of Southampton (personal blog).

Democrats are expecting to incur significant losses in the November midterm elections. Factors for this include: the historically poor electoral performance of incumbents, low midterm turnouts of the Democrat base support and the perceived failures of the Obama administration. To invigorate support come election time – from both the traditional base and floating voters – the Democrats need to manufacture and sustain a narrative that will benefit them electorally. Obamacare, which has become a toxic brand for Democrats and an electoral gift for Republicans, is likely to be eschewed by the former for a more positive message. Seemingly, the Democrats’ preference is to make a rise in the minimum wage a fundamental midterm issue.

The legislative proposal, increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, is the subject of broad cross-voter appeal. The wage rise has already been implemented for federal contractors by an executive order from Obama. Expanding it nationwide will need the approval of Congress. With the House of Representatives in Republican control it is politically improbable that such an approval will occur before the midterms. Democrats know this. The reason they are proposing such a bill is to bring the notion of pay into public debate as they appreciate it is an area in which they hold popular leverage over the Republicans. In principle, this tactic makes sense. However, there are some pitfalls and impracticalities to contend with.

Firstly: job creation. Many US citizens are worried about the economy. They are concerned with pay but they are also concerned with employment opportunities. Republicans will focus on the argument which suggests that a minimum wage rise will be at the expense of jobs. Democrats must be careful not to let the GOP frame the debate. Secondly: campaign funding. Tom Steyer, a potentially huge donor for the Democrats, wants climate change at the top of the agenda in return for the money he is willing to commit. Balancing several key narratives may prove fraught with difficulty and, counter intuitively, act to disenfranchise voters. Appeasing both the wants of donors and the electorate must be handled intelligently. These are important caveats but they are not necessarily fatal. The Democrats are up against it this coming November, and pay increase seems to be the fertile ground which they could utilise. There are few other avenues so they can afford little else.