Democrats presenting a populist economic platform have settled on a reliable and potentially potent issue heading into the elections: raising the minimum wage.
With Republicans assailing their opponents over the federal health care overhaul, Democrats are tapping income inequality to roust their most fervent supporters and corral the support of middle-class voters who fret about the growing gap between the rich and poor.
Deliberation over the minimum wage is echoing from the nation's capital to statehouses to city halls across across the country.
Jason Roe, a Republican strategist for federal, state and local candidates, says the issue is a powerful motivator for Democrats, just as same-sex marriage bans were for GOP voters over the last decade.
"Now there is a direct self-interest" for voters, Roe said. " 'If I go to the polls, I might get a raise.' "
The Democratic effort was on display last week as President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, issuing an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for future federal contractors.
U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein joined several colleagues in urging congressional Republicans to support legislation to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25 an hour. The California Democrats said the increases, slated to fully take effect in 2016, would boost wages for 15 million women who are disproportionately affected.
The Democratic Governors Association, in a widely reported memo, said it intended to make the minimum wage a campaign issue for Democratic gubernatorial contenders in Florida, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.
In California, Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10 per hour from $8 an hour by 2016. On Monday, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced a measure, Senate Bill 935, to raise the minimum wage in three steps, beginning at $11 per hour in 2015, and increasing another $1 per hour in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, the measure would adjust the minimum wage annually to the rate of inflation.
Roy Behr, a Democratic political consultant, said the issue has become significant both substantively and symbolically.
"In a campaign cycle where inequality is going to be important, the minimum wage becomes a key marker on where each of the candidates comes down on these ideas," Behr said.
That puts many Republicans in a bind.
"We have to oppose the minimum wage because it's bad public policy," Roe said. "But we have to frame it in a way that we are for creating more and better paying jobs."
Policy disagreements over minimum wage hikes are fierce.
Supporters of pay increases believe workers at the lower rungs of the wage scale have struggled to make ends meet while the value of their earnings has fallen dramatically. They say the economy as a whole prospers as a result of salary increases because workers have more money to spend on goods and services.
Critics believe minimum wage increases unfairly and abruptly boost costs for employers, threaten jobs and stand to derail what little progress has been made on the economic recovery. Amid debate last year in California, opponents of a raise cited Brown's sales and income tax hikes and the unknown costs associated with Obama's health care overhaul as further reasons to delay any increase.
With Congress deadlocked, cities and states are taking matters into their own hands. Minimum wages this year are set to exceed the federal floor of $7.25 per hour in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia are discussing plans for increases via legislation or ballot initiative this year. A diverse array of local municipalities have caught the bug, including Albuquerque, San Jose, the District of Columbia and two Maryland counties and SeaTac, near the Seattle airport. There are now proposals at various stages in San Francisco, Richmond, Berkeley, San Diego and for hotel workers in Los Angeles.
San Francisco became one of the first cities to require more robust benefits and boost base wages beyond the federal level more than a decade ago.
Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center, was part of a trio of labor experts to study the impacts and found that private employment grew 5.6 percent in San Francisco and 3 percent in Santa Clara County, while neighboring counties experienced declines. Employment among food-service workers rose nearly 18 percent in San Francisco, a higher clip than in neighboring counties.
A study by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, however, argues that the legislation signed by Brown last September will result in 46,000 to 68,000 lost jobs, depending on the rate of inflation in future years.
While the policy debate continues, the political benefit of the issue is clear for Democrats.
A healthy majority of Americans favor a large increase in the minimum wage to help reduce inequality, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. Roughly two-thirds believe mandated base pay should rise, with the average suggestion registering at $9.40 per hour. Some 85 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans want to see the wage floor lifted, the poll found.
Many Democratic voters see it as a simple matter of fairness, said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist. Meanwhile, some Republicans are put on the defensive.
"It puts them in that stereotype that is always very politically painful for Republicans, which is standing up for powerful economic interests and against the interests of working people," Carrick said. Essentially, he said, it provides an opening for a fundamental argument: "Democrats want to give America a raise and the Republicans are opposed to it."
Republicans won't cede the issue, GOP consultant Wayne Johnson said. He calls the topic a "political ploy" that doesn't work economically and is arbitrarily applied. "Some people get fired, and some people get a raise," he said.
After the president delivered his remarks on wages, Johnson said his Facebook news feed lit up with comments along the lines of " 'Yay, I want a raise. Why not $20? Why not $30?' " he said. "The way the president presented it had an unbelievability about it."
"It came off as a very political promise. I'll make them give you a raise. No argument. No rationale. Just, 'Let's make them do it,' " Johnson said.
He said Democrats' poor record on turning around the economy will make it more difficult for them to win the income-gap argument with voters.
"It's pretty tough to burn somebody's house down and then cry about the homeless," he said.
California voters also may see a twist on the usual partisan battle lines that form around the subject. Conservative Republican Ron Unz, a multimillionaire former gubernatorial candidate from Silicon Valley, is working to qualify a ballot measure to lift base wages to $10 per hour in March 2015 and $12 per hour a year later.
"Raising the California minimum wage to $12 per hour would increase the incomes of ordinary working Californians by as much as $15 billion each year and would probably be an overwhelmingly popular issue in the election, especially given the current national political climate," said Unz, who is plotting his return to politics after selling his financial services software company to Moody's Corp.
He argues that pay boosts would reduce social service and safety-net spending by pulling workers above the threshold to qualify for government aid.
"What we are seeing is the classic case of businesses privatizing the benefits of their low-wage workforces and socializing the costs," he said. "They are shifting the costs of their workers to the taxpayer."
Neither the California minimum wage law signed by Brown nor Unz's ballot proposal is indexed to inflation, which labor unions describe as the next front in their fight.
"The conventional wisdom here is after we just passed a minimum wage increase in California, it's going to be a big and expensive campaign to go for another minimum wage increase so quickly, so why not include indexing?" said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
For Republicans, an indexed minimum wage could at least reduce the frequency with which the issue is debated, acknowledged Jack Pitney, a former national official with the Republican Party who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College. "But small business would have trouble with that and it's a core Republican constituency."