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Workers’ Pay Issues Could Decide Key 2016 U.S. Senate Races, Polls Reveal

by Mitchell Hirsch, NELP Action

In an election where control of the Senate hangs in the balance, where Democrats could win back the majority with as few as four victories in states with Republican-held seats up in 2016, voters casting their ballots based on workers’ pay issues could well determine the outcome and break the gridlock holding back wage increases for millions of America’s workers.

That’s the message from a series of polls released ahead of Labor Day that show incumbent Senate Republicans in several swing states facing tough reelection battles could be upended by their stands on policies affecting pay.  The polls reveal overwhelming support among voters in seven battleground states for raising the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at the poverty-level $7.25 per hour since 2009 due to Republican opposition in Congress, and for the new federal rule that vastly expands overtime pay guarantees to millions of salaried workers.  The polls in all seven states also showed strong majorities support a gradually phased in $15 minimum wage.

Perhaps most significantly, the polls showed that when voters weigh candidates’ positions on raising the federal minimum wage and expanding overtime pay, support for Republican Senate incumbents declined and support for their Democratic challengers increased, shifting the leads to the Democrats in some races and adding to their leads in others.  In all seven states polled, the minimum wage and overtime issues produced a net shift of between three and eight points in initial and follow up polling results.  In three states – Arizona, Missouri, and North Carolina – what were initial polling leads or ties for Republican incumbents flipped to leads for the Democratic candidates. In three other states – New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Democratic challengers added to existing leads.  According to the poll results, workers’ pay issues could be decisive in potential Republican losses in six of the seven Senate races polled.

Senate polls before and after considering candidates’ positions on workers’ pay issues

senate7pollchart

The polls, which can be viewed here and here, were conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) for the NELP Action Fund among likely voters in Arizona, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin between August 26 and 29.  In all seven states, incumbent Republican senators are running for reelection this year, each with a record of voting against raising the federal minimum wage.

Voters across the swing states supported raising the federal minimum wage by approximately a 70% to 25% margin:

Support or oppose raising the federal minimum wage above $7.25

State Support Oppose
Arizona 68 28
Missouri 67 26
New Hampshire 74 24
North Carolina 72 23
Ohio 70 26
Pennsylvania 74 23
Wisconsin 70 26

 

Similarly, they supported raising the federal minimum wage first to $10, and then gradually to $15 over several years by roughly a 60% to 35% margin across the swing states:

Support or oppose gradually increasing federal minimum wage to $15

State Support Oppose
Arizona 60 37
Missouri 57 38
New Hampshire 63 34
North Carolina 61 34
Ohio 60 36
Pennsylvania 62 35
Wisconsin 63 33

 

Even stronger support was revealed for the expansion of the overtime pay guarantee for salaried workers paid less than $47,476 – up from $23,660 per year – under a new rule scheduled to take effect in December.  Under the rule, an additional 12.5 million salaried workers will be entitled to time-and-a-half overtime pay for any hours worked in excess of forty hours a week.  In the polls, support for the overtime expansion ranged from 76 to 81 percent, with monumental margins over those opposed ranging from 60 to 67 points.

Support or oppose expansion of overtime pay coverage for salaried workers making less than $47,000

State Support Oppose
Arizona 77 16
Missouri 76 16
New Hampshire 76 18
North Carolina 79 14
Ohio 80 14
Pennsylvania 81 15
Wisconsin 81 14

 

Voters were also asked how these issues would tend to affect their preferences in this year’s elections, both generically and in regard to specific candidates, and the results were remarkably consistent. Informed that Senate Republicans are actively seeking to block implementation of the overtime expansion, majorities in all seven states said they would be less likely or far less likely to support a candidate who sought to block the new rule, with less than a quarter more likely to support that candidate.

Similarly, when informed that the Republican incumbent senator running for reelection in their state opposes raising the federal minimum wage, a majority of voters in all seven states said they were less likely or far less likely to vote for that candidate, versus those more likely, with margins ranging from 50-39 in Ohio to 61-31 in Wisconsin.  And when told that the Democratic challenger for the Senate supports raising the federal minimum wage, majorities in each state said they were more likely or far more likely to vote for that candidate, versus those less likely, by margins ranging from 51-38 in Ohio to 61-31 in Wisconsin.

Of the seven states polled, four (New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) are among the 21 states where the minimum wage is stuck at the federal $7.25 per hour.  The minimum wage in the three other states is only slightly higher (Arizona $8.05, Missouri $7.65, Ohio $8.10) — and those states would still be stuck at the federal $7.25 as well, were it not for modest increases enacted by voters through ballot initiatives.

Politico broke the initial national story on the PPP polls, quoting NELP Action Fund executive director Christine Owens saying “Swing state voters in this election are looking for candidates who will stand with them in supporting a strong minimum wage increase, and elected officials who oppose raising the minimum wage do so at their political peril.”

The significance of the polls, and the prospect they signal that workers’ pay issues could affect the outcome of key Senate races, has been picked up in state coverage as well.  In Missouri, the Springfield News-Leader ran a lengthy feature news story focused on the results showing voters flipping the lead in the race from Senator Roy Blunt (R) to his challenger, Secretary of State Jason Kander (D), after weighing their stands on raising the minimum wage.  And, according to the blog Daily Kos, the Kander campaign was quick to promote the poll’s clear message, urging supporters to join the candidate’s call to raise the federal minimum wage.

In Pennsylvania, Penn Live highlighted the boost that Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is getting for actively campaigning for a $15 minimum wage while incumbent Senator Pat Toomey will likely pay a price with voters for his opposition to any minimum wage increase.  Similarly, in Wisconsin, Madison’s Capital Times featured the overwhelming 63 percent support the poll revealed for a $15 federal minimum wage, and this quote from Wisconsin Working Families co-chairman Peter Rickman: “This poll demonstrates that voters are looking to elect leaders who will raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, after decades of stagnant wage growth and dramatic growth of economic inequality.  Sen. Johnson does not even believe in a minimum wage, while former Sen. Feingold is a strong advocate for $15 — so we are engaging working people to find out more about the candidates and their positions on the $15 minimum wage at the ballot box.”

In Ohio, where Democratic Senate challenger Ted Strickland picked up three points in the follow up poll but remained six points behind incumbent Senator Rob Portman – the only challenger to not lead the incumbent in the follow up poll results – WCSM Radio reported on the 60 percent support from Ohioans for a $15 minimum wage. “Raising the minimum wage has bipartisan support among voters,” WCSM quoted NELP Action’s Paul Sonn as saying, “and leading strategists such as Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, have warned if you are fighting against a minimum-wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle because most Americans, even most Republicans, support it.”

In the 2016 election cycle, a total of 34 U.S. Senate seats are being contested – 10 currently held by Democrats and 24 by Republicans, who now hold a slim four seat majority in that chamber.  With the polls in seven swing states showing the potential for losses by incumbents who oppose boosting workers’ pay, voters across the country this year can help break the Republicans’ blockade against raising the federal minimum wage.

Related stories

Opposing a Minimum Wage Hike Could Cost the GOP the Senate – Op-ed by Paul Sonn in Newsweek

With survey showing support for overtime rules, where do GOP senators stand? – Op-ed by Judy Conti in The Hill

 

Key Senate Races Are Focus for Supporters of Federal Minimum Wage Increase, Overtime Expansion

by Mitchell Hirsch, NELP Action Fund

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups has launched a campaign to make boosting workers’ pay a pivotal issue in the 2016 elections.  Looking to leverage strong public support for minimum wage increases, the effort will spotlight candidates’ positions on substantially raising the federal minimum wage and protecting a major expansion of overtime pay coverage.

With control of the U.S. Senate in the balance this election year, the groups are targeting Senate contests in at least seven battleground states where Republicans who have blocked minimum wage increases, and whose party leaders in the Senate threaten to roll back overtime pay guarantees for millions of workers, are seeking reelection.

Led by the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, the Center for Popular Democracy Action Fund, and the Working Families Organization, the campaign intends to make raising wages a decisive issue in several key Senate races, working with grassroots groups in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Arizona, and New Hampshire.

7 battleground states where coalition of progressive advocacy groups are challenging incumbent Republican Senators on issues of raising workers’ pay.

The effort received national attention over the weekend with a report in the Wall Street Journal.

“There’s unprecedented momentum this year for raising the minimum wage. Voters are hungry for leaders who’ll take a strong stand in raising wages and frustrated with their Republican majorities in Congress,” said Paul Sonn, a spokesperson for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

While the focus is on Senate races, “partners in this effort are educating voters on where candidates for office from president down to city councilperson stand on raising wages,” said Mr. Sonn, who added that Hillary Clinton is a strong supporter of raising the federal minimum wage while Donald Trump “has been all over the map.”

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance after Republicans won the majority in 2014, the groups are betting minimum wage could be a pivotal issue in key races in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin, Ohio, Arizona, New Hampshire, and North Carolina.

. . . .

Republicans are defending 24 Senate seats this November, while Democrats are defending 10. Democrats need to win at least five net seats to gain back control from Republicans, or four if Hillary Clinton wins the White House and Tim Kaine is elected vice president and can break tied Senate votes.

Some of the lawmakers the groups plan to target because of the lack of support they’ve shown for higher minimum wages are Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who is in a contest against Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, challenged by Democrat Jason Kander.

In Pennsylvania, GOP Sen. Pat Toomey could feel some heat from the groups in his race against Democrat Katie McGinty, who has repeatedly called for raising the federal minimum wage. And in Wisconsin, they will target Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in his contest with Democrat Russ Feingold, who has made raising the minimum wage a pivotal part of his campaign.

Marina Dimitrijevic, the state director of the Wisconsin Working Families Party, one of the grassroots groups involved, said the organization plans to bring a crowd to a mid-October debate between Sen. Johnson and Mr. Feingold. It will also invite Mr. Johnson to a roundtable discussion about raising minimum wages.

“I hope he comes and listens,” she said.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and leading Democrats in Congress have gained no traction on bills to increase it. Pay floors have been rising in cities and states instead to as high as $15 an hour.

Of the 24 Republican-held Senate seats that are up in the 2016 election, 22 of them are held by incumbents seeking reelection.  They include all seven of the Republican incumbents in races targeted by groups pressing for a higher federal wage floor.  All seven of those incumbent senators voted to block a federal minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $10.10 in 2014, and have stood by Senate Republican leaders’ refusal to consider any legislation to raise the federal wage floor ever since.

Sixteen Republican-held Senate seats up in this election are in states that are among the 21 states stuck at the $7.25 federal minimum wage, including fourteen where Republican incumbents are running for reelection.  Another seven states with only slightly higher state minimum wages have Republican incumbents seeking reelection.

In the 24 states with Republican-held Senate seats up in this election, 27 million workers are paid less than $15 per hour, including nearly 20 million who are paid less than $12 an hour.  In the seven states targeted for the workers’ wages issue focus, more than 10 million workers earn less than $15 per hour, including more than 7 million who are paid less than $12 an hour.

The seven states selected by the groups for the campaign’s election cycle focus are among those considered the most competitive Senate races.  Their outcomes will likely decide who holds the Senate majority in the next Congress.

Arizona:  Sen. John McCain (R) vs. Ann Kirkpatrick (D)

Missouri:  Sen. Roy Blunt (R) vs. Jason Kander (D)

New Hampshire:  Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) vs. Maggie Hassan (D)

North Carolina:  Sen. Richard Burr (R) vs. Deborah Ross (D)

Ohio:  Sen. Rob Portman (R) vs. Ted Strickland (D)

Pennsylvania:  Sen. Pat Toomey (R) vs. Katie McGinty (D)

Wisconsin:  Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. Russ Feingold (D)

As Labor Day approaches, marking the start in earnest of campaign season, the groups plan to drive a media narrative on the potentially game-changing impact of raising workers’ pay as a pivotal election issue.

Campaigning for $15 Minimum Wage, Bernie Sanders Earns Resounding Win in New Hampshire Primary

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has made a $15 minimum wage a centerpiece of his campaign’s pledge to fight income inequality, won the nation’s first Democratic presidential primary Tuesday in New Hampshire, and did so by a substantial margin. With nearly all the votes tallied, Mr. Sanders garnered 60.4 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a 22 point margin.

The vote in New Hampshire came just three days after fast-food and other low-wage workers held their first-ever strikes in the state, urging workers to vote for candidates who support their call for union rights and a $15 minimum wage. The protests included a rally outside the Republican debate in Manchester, organized by the Fight for $15 campaign, which estimates that nearly half of New Hampshire’s workers—about 281,000 people—are paid less than $15 per hour. Nationally, 42 percent of America’s workers make less than $15 per hour, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project.

The 60 percent vote for Sanders on Tuesday bears striking similarity to the results of a national poll conducted for NELP in January 2015 which showed 63 percent of voters favoring a $15 federal minimum wage.

The New Hampshire results come a week after Mrs. Clinton had a better showing in the Iowa caucuses, narrowly winning by 0.2 percent, the smallest margin in the 44-year history of the state’s Democratic caucus.

Both Sanders and Clinton strongly favor raising the federal minimum wage, which remains stuck at the poverty-level $7.25 per hour due to Congressional Republicans’ refusal to consider raising it. Mrs. Clinton supports the Senate Democratic leadership’s proposal for a phased-in $12 federal minimum wage by 2020, and has endorsed higher local minimum wages, including cities moving to a $15 wage floor. But she raises the issue less frequently than Sanders does, and has noted her opposition to Sanders’s call for a $15 federal minimum wage. In contrast, Sanders makes his support of a $15 minimum wage an almost constant component of his campaign message. None of the remaining Republican presidential candidates supports raising the federal minimum wage.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire are among the 21 states where the minimum wage is determined by the federal minimum wage of $7.25, as is South Carolina, another early primary state, where Republicans will vote on February 20th and Democrats one week later.

Exit polling from New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary shows that Sanders’s emphasis on fighting income inequality, supporting higher wages and benefits for workers, and a $15 minimum wage helped earn him his strongest support from lower-income working people. Among voters in the Democratic primary with incomes of less than $30,000 per year (equivalent to $14.42 per hour for 40 hours a week year-round), Sanders received 72 percent of their votes compared to 24 percent for Clinton. That margin of roughly 16,500 votes represented nearly a third (29.5 percent) of Sanders’s total vote margin. Among Democratic primary voters from households with combined incomes of less than $50,000 per year, Sanders received 65 percent of the vote compared to 32 percent for Clinton, with his vote margin among those voters being almost half (44.9 percent) of his total margin. The only income group in which Clinton outpolled Sanders Tuesday was among voters with incomes of $200,000 per year or more.

Also notable in the exit polling, the two most important issues identified by Democratic primary voters were the economy and jobs (33 percent) and income inequality (32 percent). Voters who said income inequality was the most important issue favored Sanders by a 71 to 29 margin, while those who said the economy and jobs were most important voted for Sanders 59 to 39. And those who reported voting in a Democratic primary for the first time favored Sanders by 78 percent to 21 percent for Clinton.

Entrance and exit polls from the Iowa Democratic caucuses also showed Sanders’s support strongest among lower-income voters. There, he won among voters from households with incomes of less than $30,000 and $50,000 per year, but by smaller margins than in New Hampshire. Iowa Democratic caucus voters from households earning less than $30,000 favored Sanders by a 57 to 41 margin; those from households with incomes of less than $50,000 supported Sanders 53 to 44. But, in contrast to New Hampshire, Clinton won among voters in all income groups from households of $50,000 or more, and did so by a ten-point margin, 52 to 42.

In New Hampshire, Sanders began his campaign with little support despite hailing from the neighboring state of Vermont. The day after he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination last April, polls showed him at just 11.3 percent in New Hampshire—40 points behind Clinton. By the time he joined workers at a Fight for $15 rally outside the U.S. Capitol last July—the same day he introduced his federal $15 minimum wage bill in Congress—he had narrowed the gap in the polls to trail Clinton by less than 17 points. Sanders then elevated his call for a $15 minimum wage to the top of his campaign’s agenda, and within two months, the poll numbers in New Hampshire had swung by 30 points to show him leading by nearly 13 points. And while his poll numbers continued to solidify through the fall, his 22 point margin in Tuesday’s primary was more than 8 points higher than even his average lead in the most recent polls.

With more and more cities and states taking action to raise minimum wages to $15 per hour, and more campaigns to do so emerging for this year and beyond, Tuesday’s resounding primary win for Bernie Sanders could mark a political turning point for the growing movement for a $15 minimum wage. We may well see more candidates for elected office campaign for a $15 minimum wage, joining the ranks of Russ Feingold, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wisconsin, and Katie McGinty, a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, who are already doing so.

Senators Face Pressure to Raise Minimum Wage Ahead of Upcoming Vote

Rubio and Johnson singled out for opposition to raising minimum wage; Donnelly, Nelson, Coons, and Carper urged to co-sponsor Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013

Washington, DC – With a vote to raise the federal minimum wage expected in the U.S. Senate soon after Thanksgiving recess, voters on Wednesday urged Senators of both parties to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013.

Constituents, including low-wage workers, gathered at the state offices of Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Tom Carper (D-DE), urging them to co-sponsor the Fair Minimum Wage Act. Delegations to each office emphasized the importance of each senator’s support and co-sponsorship of the bill ahead of the vote.

Meanwhile, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) drew fire from voters outside their state offices, calling attention to theirrecord of opposition to raising the minimum wage.

“Millionaires like Sen. Johnson don’t understand reality,” said Devonte Yates, who works for minimum wage at a McDonalds in Milwaukee. “People like me work hard but we can’t survive without public assistance.  I make burgers at work but can’t afford to make my own burger at home.”

Small business owners and low-wage workers also held a press conference at the Cedar Rapids office of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the lead sponsor of the Fair Minimum Wage Act, emphasizing the economic benefits of raising the minimum wage. An April 2013 poll found that 67 percent of small business owners support raising and indexing the minimum wage and indicated that the majority believe it will help the economy.

“If a small company, like ours, pays all of our employees at least $10 per hour to start, large companies like Starbucks, Macy’s, McDonald’s or Walmart, who all have annual profits in excess of $1 billion, can certainly afford to increase their workers’ wages to $10 or $15 per hour, and still have plenty leftover to continue paying their CEOs multi-million dollar salaries,” said Rhonda Walker, Vice President at Alpha Services Inc., a maintenance services business with 50 employees in Waterloo, Iowa.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10, would benefit an estimated 30 million low-paid workers and generate $32 billion in economic growth, according to an analysis of Census data by the Economic Policy Institute. The measure would also index the minimum wage to rise each year with the cost of living, and boost the minimum wage for tipped workers from $2.13 per hour to 70 percent of the full minimum wage.

The events Wednesday occur just weeks after the Obama Administration announced its support for the Fair Minimum Wage Act following a meeting with Senate Democrats. A national poll conducted in July 2013 by Hart Research Associates found that 80 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republican voters, support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The poll also found that 74 percent of Americans consider raising the minimum wage to be an important legislative priority for Congress to address over the next year.

The most rigorous economic research over the past 20 years shows that raising the minimum wage boosts worker pay without causing job losses – even in regions where the economy is weak or unemployment is high. A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research reviews the past two decades of research on the impact of minimum wage increases on employment and concludes that “the weight of the evidence points to little or no effect of minimum wage increases on job growth.”  In February, leading mainstream economists polled by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business backed raising and indexing the minimum wage by nearly a 4 to 1 margin, saying that the benefits outweigh any costs.