Greg Nash

Republicans are struggling to address income inequality on the campaign trail as they look to connect with middle class voters.

{mosads}Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are hammering Republicans over what they say is a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Polls show their calls to raise the minimum wage and improve working conditions seem to resonate with voters.

By contrast, many of the top GOP presidential candidates are finding it difficult to gain traction with a broader message of economic growth and job creation, strategists say.

This disconnect could make Republican presidential candidates vulnerable to attacks from the left over income inequality that place them at odds with the average worker, according to a GOP strategist.

“Politically, the sounds bites on the Democratic side are better,” acknowledged GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It’s something that sounds good to a lot of voters.”

The GOP’s struggle to connect with working-class voters is not for a lack of trying.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took a stab at it Thursday during the first GOP presidential debate.

“If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?” Rubio asked. “I was raised paycheck to paycheck.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) also made an effort to level with working-class voters during the GOP debate, describing his humble upbringing with a father who was a mailman. “So I understand the concerns of all the folks across the country,” he said.

But promising to raise the minimum wage is typically more popular with middle class voters than talking more broadly about economic growth, O’Connell explained. That’s why the message from Sanders and Clinton is appealing to many workers.

Sanders, the Vermont senator who describes himself as a Democratic socialist, is backing a $15 an hour minimum wage that is popular with many low-wage workers. While Clinton also has thrown her support behind raising the minimum wage, but hasn’t named a figure.

Most Republicans, meanwhile, vigorously oppose such steep hikes in the minimum wage, which they argue would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. They call for fewer regulations and lower taxes, which they argue will create jobs and naturally push wages higher.

But that message is a tougher sell to working-class voters, O’Connell said.

“What Republicans tell you over and over is, ‘If we increase economic growth, we will increase jobs,’ but what they should be talking about is wages,” he explained. 

The strategy for addressing income inequality and connecting with middle class voters is still evolving in many Republican campaigns. 

Kasich is touting his record of balancing the budget in Ohio while creating some 350,000 jobs.

“Economic growth is the key to everything,” Kasich said. “Once you have economic growth, it is important that you reach out to people who live in the shadows, people who don’t feel they ever get a fair shot.”

Other Republican presidential candidates are taking a more aggressive approach in an attempt to turn the tables on Democrats.

During the GOP debate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) pointed out “there are 6 million people living in poverty today — more than when Barack Obama got elected.”

“I’m very glad anytime President Obama or Hillary Clinton brings up income inequality, because income inequality has increased dramatically under their policies,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told The Hill.

“No one has been hurt more under the Obama economy than young people, than Hispanics, than African Americans, than single moms,” he added.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump last month attacked Clinton on income inequality.

“I laugh when see it,” Trump told Fox News. “I was watching her talk about income inequality. That can be beaten. All you have to do is take a look at her donor list.” 

Of course, Republican gaffes don’t help. 

Last month, Bush made headlines for claiming “people need to work longer hours,” which didn’t sit well with working-class voters.

Sanders was quick to come to the defense of workers, saying they need better wages, not longer hours. 

He attacked Republicans again Thursday following the GOP debate. 

“It’s over,” Sanders tweeted. “Not one word about economic inequality…That’s why the Rs are so out of touch.”

The issue of income inequality typically resurfaces ahead of major elections. Last fall, a Gallup poll found that Democrats are the “clear favorites” to handle income and wealth distribution across the U.S.

In fact, about 49 percent of voters said Democrats are better equipped to address income inequality — compared to the 39 percent who sided with Republicans.

“Democrats are the clear favorites to handle wealth and income distribution,” Gallup wrote.

A year later, the debate over income inequality isn’t going away as Democrats continue to press the issue. 

Another more recent Gallup poll found that 63 percent of voters believe that money and wealth distribution in this country is unfair, while two-thirds of voters say they are concerned the gap between the rich and poor is only growing larger, in a recent New York Times-CBS poll.

But Republicans have found it difficult to connect with average middle class workers who care more about their wages and less about economic growth.

“I don’t think you can become president in 2016 without having a real plan to increase people’s wages — and, right now, Republicans are allergic to that topic,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Marco Rubio Ted Cruz
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