To get a sense of how this dynamic is playing out, note that national liberals and labor are closely watching how two of the likely 2016 candidates — Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York and Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland — are handling minimum wage bills in their states. In New York, Cuomo is in talks with state legislators about a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $9 — which has disappointed labor and progressive activists who have organized a group called the New York Minimum Wage Coalition to push for a bigger hike. In Maryland, a state senate panel just voted down a minimum wage hike, frustrating labor and progressive activists who privately want to see more leadership from O’Malley in pushing an increase.
National labor and progressive groups will be watching both governors on the issue. “The minimum wage bills in New York and Maryland are certainly things we’ll be watching closely,” Peter Colavito, the director of government relations for the Service Employees International Union, tells me.
Meanwhile, on gay rights and gun control, 2016 hopefuls have been aggressively elevating their profiles. Cuomo and O’Malley both worked hard to pass historic gay marriage bills in their state; meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, another possible 2016 contender, recently released a video endorsing gay marriage. Both Cuomo and O’Malley rolled out aggressive gun packages in the wake of Newtown.
There are a number of reasons for the prioritization of these issues. Health care has somewhat receded as an issue among Dems since the election confirmed Obamacare will survive and continue to be implemented. Immigration may well be neutralized, as it appears immigration reform may pass Congress. Meanwhile, the Newtown shooting — and Obama’s own high profile push for gun control — has elevated gun violence as a priority among Democrats. On gay marriage, the rapid evolution of public opinion in favor of it has thrust the issue into the spotlight for Democratic politicians. Obama’s public support for it all but ensures no Democrat will be viable for the presidential nomination again without similarly declaring support. Obama’s push for a minimum wage hike, and the long time lag since the last federal raise, has elevated this issue as a Dem priority, too.
The attention on these issues also reflects the changing nature of the Democratic coalition. They are priorities for voter groups that are increasingly becoming pillars of the Democratic coalition — minorities, young voters, and socially liberal college educated whites, especially women. Meanwhile, the party is increasingly less reliant on culturally conservative downscale whites and is less wary about embracing policies that will alienate them — freeing up Democrats with national ambition to more aggressively embrace formerly charged social issue positions.
None of this is to say that these issues are the only ones that will drive the politicking into 2016. But keep an eye on how Dems handle guns, gays, and the minimum wage — there will be a lot of action around them.