Will Democrats Kill Their Golden Goose?

To the naked eye, a hike in the federal minimum wage looks like a done deal. Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi will include it in the House's “first 100 hours” agenda. President Bush has said he'll sign a hike as long as it includes some relief for small businesses. It would be difficult for the minority of Republican senators to sustain a filibuster in defense of a wage floor that was set in 1997.

However, there is one big reason for the Democrats — yes, Democrats — to avoid hiking the federal minimum wage in 2007. It's a politically dumb thing to do because it would deprive them of a crucial get-out-the-vote issue in the 2008 elections.

Minimum wage increases were up for vote in six states this year and carried all but one state by overwhelming margins (Coloradans approved it by a more modest margin). Residents of Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio decided that low wage workers deserved a raise — out of somebody else's wallet, of course.

According to preliminary turnout figures compiled by George Mason University political scientist Michael P. McDonald, the initiatives did a great job of getting voters out to the polls in the midterm elections. Nationally, there were 83,217,655 ballots cast for the highest elected office in any state — a 6.2 % increase over the 2002 midterms. Nearly a third of that increase (1,450,223 ballots) was concentrated in the six minimum wage-hiking states.

The minimum wage vote had four positive effects for Democrats: (1) It gave them control of the U.S. Senate; (2) It added to their majority in the House; (3) It helped them in state gubernatorial and legislative races; and (4) It was a Democrat-friendly issue to rival gay marriage.

In Missouri and Montana, the minimum wage vote doomed the reelection prospects of Jim Talent and Conrad Burns. Both lost close races in the face of majorities that were 13.3 % and 22.6 % greater than the last midterm elections. Ohio's Mike DeWine lost reelection by a large margin, but that margin was considerably lower than the over 600,000 additional voters (an 18.6 % increase).

Popular incumbent Senator Jon Kyl survived in Arizona, but Representative J.D. Hayworth and candidate Randy Graf were walloped. Colorado's 7th district changed hands as did Ohio's 18th. Several incumbent representatives, including Nevada's John Porter, Ohio's Jean Schmidt, and Arizona's Rick Renzi, had close shaves.

Nationwide, six governorships fell under the Democratic assault. It's significant that two of those were in minimum wage ballot states. In fact, the count might have gone higher if the Missouri gubernatorial election was held this year. Ohio and Colorado went Democrat, Arizona Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano was easily reelected, and Nevada's new Republican governor Jim Gibbons received only a plurality of the vote.

None of this should be too surprising, because several Democratic strategists spoke of the minimum wage hikes as their very own version of gay marriage before the election. They were right. It proved to be a popular issue that can get reluctant voters out to the ballot box. While they're casting votes for the little guy, those voters also tend pull for the party that claims most loudly to speak for the poor and downtrodden burger flippers.

But here's the rub: Democrats can continue to hike minimum wages on a state-by-state basis or they can hike the federal minimum wage, but probably not both. A federal raise will relieve pressure to hike state minimum wages and rob Democrats of future political gains.

What might serve Democrats best at this point is misdirection and demagoguery. They can encourage Republicans in the Senate to filibuster it or, failing that, pass a bill so ridiculous that even President Bush will have to veto it. Then tell voters the Man is keeping them down.