For the national Democratic Party, there are only two possible outcomes in today’s elections: bad and worse. Even in the best-case scenario, Democrats will barely hang onto a narrow Senate majority that is virtually powerless in the face of Republican obstruction. However, while the headlines tomorrow are likely to be grim, progressives can take heart in tangible policy victories in four states, all solid red in the last election, where voters are set to give the working poor a much-needed raise.
Perhaps no issue has been a bigger political winner this year than raising the minimum wage. Indeed, after Seattle raised its minimum wage to a record $15 an hour and fast-food workers nationwide united to demand higher pay, the undeniable resonance of this issue with mostly apathetic midterm voters demonstrates the power of social movements to transcend partisan politics and drive the electoral agenda. Furthermore, it is a clear signal that these elections, whatever their outcome, should not be thought of as a triumph of right-wing politics over progressive Democratic ideas. To the contrary, if Republicans prevail, it will be in spite of their support for right-wing policies.
In Alaska, Sen. Mark Begich (D) has been fighting for his political life, but his chances of survival have received a boost from a ballot initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage to $9.75 per hour by 2016. In a recent poll, 61 percent of voters said they support the measure. Enthusiasm is so strong that Begich’s Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, now publicly supports the initiative despite previously claiming that raising the minimum wage would “shackle Alaska’s potential to grow jobs.”
In Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor (D) is in danger of losing his seat to Rep. Tom Cotton (R), a referendum to raise the hourly minimum wage by more than two dollars, to $8.50, is expected to pass overwhelmingly. Give Arkansas A Raise Now, a coalition of faith, community and progressive groups, gathered the signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot. According to a poll released last week, 69 percent of voters support the pay raise — and that includes Cotton, who opposed increasing the minimum wage as a member of the House. Cotton feebly explained his stance by saying, “I’m going to vote for that initiated act as a citizen.”
Republican Senate candidates look as though they are cruising to victory in both Nebraska and South Dakota, and yet it appears that voters in both states will approve a higher minimum wage Tuesday. So will voters in Illinois, where a nonbinding resolution is on the ballot, and Oakland and San Francisco are voting to raise the minimum wage at the city level. Meanwhile, as Timothy Noah points out in Politico, the minimum wage has become a key issue in hotly contested states where it is not on the ballot, forcing Republican candidates to backtrack from their conservative positions.
The potency of this issue is not surprising: Polls have found that more than 70 percent of Americans, including majorities of both political parties, support raising the minimum wage. But the success of these initiatives in red states in an election cycle that favors Republicans — who blocked minimum wage bills in the House and the Senate — is important. It shows, once again, that the American people want to see genuinely progressive reforms, not the center-right policies that too frequently dominate the debate. And this is true across a range of issues. They support expanding, not cutting, Social Security. They support tightening, not relaxing, financial regulations. They support raising, not reducing, taxes on the rich. On issue after issue, as has been the case for years, clear majorities of Americans prefer a progressive Democratic agenda.
There are many reasons, notwithstanding that reality, for Republican success, from President Obama’s low approval numbers to traditionally low turnout, from widespread fears about Ebola to dissatisfaction with the economy. In fact, while the economy in the past six months has grown at its fastest rate in more than a decade, news that would typically be a boon to the incumbent party, Democrats have been hurt by stagnant wages — which would be higher had Republicans not repeatedly blocked Democratic efforts to help workers.
What this election is, progressives will almost certainly conclude, is deeply disheartening. What it is not, however, is a mandate for right-wing policy. This election is proof that, even in an abysmal political climate, movements can shift mountains. So progressives should not think of this election as another Republican “shellacking,” but as the year some of America got a raise.