Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage is crumbling

by Judy Conti, NELP Action

While Republicans continue to refuse to compromise on key issues like appointing a new Supreme Court Justice, there’s one Republican roadblock that’s beginning to crumble: opposition to raising the minimum wage.

That’s no surprise. Poll after poll shows that by substantial margins and on a bi-partisan basis, voters support raising the minimum wage. And though our economy is improving, 42 percent of the workforce still makes less than $15 per hour, and in a consumer-driven economy like ours, that puts a drag on the ability of businesses to thrive, grow and hire. This has made income inequality, and how we fight it, a top issue this election cycle. And it has made supporting an increase in the minimum wage politically popular.

During two recent Senate debates, two GOP candidates, Rob Portman (Ohio) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) both broke with their previous opposition to raising the minimum wage (or in the case of Sen. Johnson, even having a minimum wage), and made it clear during their debates that it’s absolutely time to raise the federal minimum wage.

Although Johnson and Portman appear to be defying the norm for their party, they’re actually not alone. Both Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rep. Peter King (New York) have shown support for raising the minimum wage before this campaign season began.  Former Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney has long voiced his support for raising and indexing the minimum wage so it increases each year, and other notable other GOP politicians including Rick Santorum and Henry Barbour have joined the call. Even GOP Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has voiced his support for a $10 federal minimum wage. Of course, these politicians have called for a far more moderate increase than the current bills pending in Congress, but they are all willing to engage in the crucial discussion of how high we should raise the minimum wage—rather than how low, or non-existent, it should be.

But the real watershed moment came just recently when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) proudly announced her support for a $15 minimum wage for Florida. Her stunning endorsement is the most hopeful sign yet that we are finally reaching the tipping point when Congressional Republicans realize that opposing an increase in the minimum wage is politically unpopular.

Ros-Lehtinen explained, “Increasing the minimum wage is good not only for the worker, it is good for those companies that employ them.” Polling by leading Republican strategist Frank Luntz’s firm, LuntzGlobal, backs her up: it shows that while big-money business lobby groups fight even small raises, business owners are actually OK with raising the minimum wage by a lopsided 80-to-8 percent margin. LuntzGlobal warned minimum wage opponents, “If you’re fighting against the minimum wage increase, you’re fighting an uphill battle, because most Americans, even most Republicans are okay with raising the minimum wage.”

Congressional inactivity on raising the minimum wage in recent years, led solely by the GOP, means that in spite of the great strides states and cities are making across the country with their minimum wages, tens of millions of workers are falling further and further behind each year.  As the NELP Action Fund recently documented, there are 24 Republicans up for election in the Senate who live in states where a combined 27 million workers are paid less than $15 per hour, and nearly 20 million make less than $12 per hour.

It’s not only the individual worker who benefits from a wage increase – our economy will benefit, too. When people have more money in their pockets, they have more money to spend in their local economies. Self and family sustaining wages create a virtuous cycle of economic activity and well-being, and it’s clear that this message is truly gaining bi-partisan steam as we approach a new Administration and the next Congress.

The Republicans coming out in support of a minimum wage increase are listening to real small business owners and their own constituents. And as momentum for raising the wage continues to grow, we expect more of their colleagues to step out of the shadows and admit that raising the minimum wage is good policy, good politics, and the right thing to do for the working people they represent.

Judy Conti is federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

This op-ed was originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog.