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Bellwethers: Key Issues in the Battle for Congress

Key Issue » Ballot initiatives and voter turnout

Race Republican Leans Democrat
Mo. Senate Sen. James M. Talent (i)   ?   Claire McCaskill
Ohio Senate Sen. Mike DeWine (i)     » Rep. Sherrod Brown
Minn. 6th district Michele Bachmann   ?   Patty Wetterling
Fla. 13th district Vern Buchanan     » Christine Jennings

KEY: (i) Incumbent | « Leans Republican | » Leans Democratic | ? Tossup

A CONFLUENCE OF CANDIDATES AND ISSUES

This Time, Ballot Issues Could Rally Liberal Base

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 28, 2006

CLEVELAND -- On a recent Saturday afternoon, a team of canvassers armed with handheld digital devices spread out across the city. Their aim was to urge residents to support a ballot initiative requiring an increase in Ohio's minimum wage.

But one beneficiary could be someone hoping for a new job that pays a good bit better than minimum wage: Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who is running to unseat Sen. Mike DeWine (R), the two-term incumbent, on Nov. 7.

"Congress has raised its own pay 10 times while the minimum wage stayed the same," Brown told a crowd last weekend at East Cleveland Community Theater.

In 2004, Republicans in Ohio and elsewhere tended to benefit from ballot initiatives. Measures to ban same-sex marriage, for example, passed easily. In the process, some election analysts said, the measures revved the conservative base to help Republican candidates from President Bush on down.

In 2006, Democrats are hoping to prove that ballot politics can work in the other direction. Measures to increase the minimum wage are before voters in six states. Four of those, Arizona, Ohio, Missouri and Montana, feature close Senate races with a GOP incumbent. In Missouri, moreover, a measure backing stem cell research is ahead in the polls -- which Democrats say could lift their candidate.

In Ohio, recent polls show that at least 70 percent of voters support an initiative to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.85 and index it to inflation. A coalition of labor unions, faith groups and liberal activists is working to pass it. If their efforts also pump up voter turnout for Democrats, Brown said, he is happy for the help.

"Some people will vote because of the minimum wage," Brown said in an interview. "I think it will help bring out voters. I'm guessing those voters will vote for Democrats. It's up to us to make sure they do."

Eight states have ballot measures to ban same-sex marriage, but their impact may be less than in previous years. Few of these states have competitive Senate or House races. And in those that do, such as Virginia and Tennessee, the issue is not as prominent as it was around the country in 2004.

In Virginia, for example, Sen. George Allen (R) supports a proposal against same-sex marriage while former Navy secretary James Webb (D) opposes such a ban. But only a slim majority of the electorate favored the initiative in a recent Washington Post poll, and the Senate race has been dominated by topics such as the war in Iraq and the character of the candidates.

The Missouri stem cell initiative, which the state's Senate candidates disagree on, would amend the state constitution to ensure that any form of research that is legal in the United States cannot be restricted in Missouri. State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) supports the measure, and Sen. James M. Talent (R) opposes it. The initiative is being publicized with more than $15 million from Jim and Virginia Stowers, a Kansas City couple who are benefactors of a vast medical research center.

"There are many people in this state . . . [whose] politics might be different except for stem cell research," McCaskill said in an interview. A recent poll suggested sizable support for the initiative: 58 percent.

But mobilized against the proposal is Missouri's antiabortion movement, a key constituency for Talent, who is neck-and-neck with McCaskill in recent polling.


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