GOP Senate candidates are struggling to find the right message on the minimum wage.
In competitive fights across the country, Republican candidates are opposing the wage hike, or have sought to dodge the question entirely.
It also increasingly highlights a divide within the party, as GOP figures like 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney have publicly endorsed raising the wage.
The result: Republican candidates are stuck in a tough position for fear of upsetting a base that thinks the wage hike would cost jobs.
“They're having a hard time messaging this,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “The issue of the minimum wage has dogged Republicans for years ... the hard thing is convincing voters that [raising the minimum wage] is going to cost jobs.”
Democrats privately admit the issue isn’t going to swing any elections by itself, but they’re happy to have a debate that highlights their larger narrative that Republicans don’t care about working people.
In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, fresh off a victory in the GOP Senate primary, repeatedly refused to answer questions on MSNBC about whether he’d support raising the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Democrats pounced, noting that as state Speaker he should have a position. The Hill later obtained a 2010 survey in which Tillis said he opposed increasing North Carolina’s minimum wage.
In Arkansas, Rep. Tom Cotton (R) has publicly opposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, but has been quiet on a state ballot initiative to raise Arkansas’s minimum wage from the national rate of $7.25 to $8.50 an hour.
That’s given an opening to Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who opposes his party’s push for a $10.10 federal minimum wage but backs the $8.50 minimum for his state.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led the fight to stop a national minimum wage increase and has also opposed an effort in Kentucky to raise the state minimum to $10.10. His opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), touts the $10.10 hike on the campaign trail, and said in late April that it would be “the first thing I put my name to” if elected to the Senate.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) recently took to the Senate floor to argue that the $10.10 wage “is just getting to the poverty level.” Both front-runner Dan Sullivan and his GOP primary opponents have come out against raising the federal minimum wage, while Sullivan hasn’t taken a position on a proposal to raise Alaska’s state minimum wage to $9.75 an hour and then index future hikes to inflation.
In Michigan, GOP Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has looked to finesse the issue, saying she’s open to an increase smaller than the one pushed by national Democrats. Michigan GOP state legislators are considering a smaller minimum wage increase that would also remove the ballot initiative to increase it to $10.10 statewide.
Romney joined two of his former rivals for the GOP nomination — former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) — in calling for a national minimum wage increase last week.
Some GOP strategists argue the party would be better off backing at least some increase to the minimum wage.
“The minimum wage battle is a microcosm of a bigger issue as far as messaging goes. And the Republican Party needs to get right on this, show they care about those doing the jobs, not just job creators,” said one Republican strategist working on a handful of Senate races. “Republicans really need to take a look at what Rick [Santorum] and [Mitt] Romney are saying and say they need to change their messaging going forward.”
Polls bear that out, especially in some of the battleground states.
While most national polls have found between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans support increasing the minimum wage, an April poll in Arkansans found that 79 percent supported a minimum wage increase to $8.50 an hour. A March poll in Michigan found 65 percent of voters supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and 61 percent of Kentuckians supported doing so in their state in a February poll.
But national Republicans argue Democrats are only playing election-year politics after ignoring the economy.
“Democrats have controlled Washington for years but only seem interested in the minimum wage just a few months before an election where they have to face voters. Do they care more about workers or their own political fortunes?” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said.