Claire McCaskill Could Be Saved By The Minimum Wage

The embattled senator may get a boost from Missouri voters who turn out for a referendum to hike the minimum wage to $12.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats seeking re-election next week, caught in a tight race with Republican state Attorney General Josh Hawley.

If she survives to win a third Senate term, McCaskill might have the minimum wage to thank.

In addition to choosing a senator on Tuesday, Missourians will be voting on Proposition B, a referendum to raise the statewide minimum wage from $7.85 per hour to $12 by 2023. Minimum wage proposals like Prop B tend to do very well on the ballot, even in conservative-leaning states. They also seem to fire up the progressive base.

Some Democrats may be hoping the measure helps drag McCaskill across the finish line. The primary group leading the “yes” effort on Prop B, Raise Up Missouri, has received more than $6.5 million in contributions, including more than $800,000 last month. The bulk of that money ― $4.6 million ― has come from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal Washington-based 501(c)(4) organization that doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Sen. Claire McCaskill is in a close battle to get re-elected next week.
Sen. Claire McCaskill is in a close battle to get re-elected next week.

That’s not an outrageous amount of money in the world of modern political campaigns, but it appears to be more than went to the “yes” camp pushing any other minimum wage ballot initiative in either the 2016 or 2014 election cycle.

It also seems like a lot of money considering there is no organized campaign against Prop B. The state chamber of commerce has pretty much sat this one out, preoccupied perhaps with a different ballot measure that would tighten up rules on lobbying and campaign contributions. That means the pro-Prop B message in TV ads and direct mail is barely being countered.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund didn’t respond to questions on its donations to the minimum wage cause.

Mike Saltsman, managing director of the Washington-based Employment Policies Institute, an industry-backed group that opposes minimum wage hikes, said he thinks the backers of the pro-Prop B campaign are hoping it will help drive turnout that boosts McCaskill.

“In an election year with a hotly contested Senate race, if I’m the folks on the other side of the aisle, I’m probably thinking about an all-of-the-above strategy ― what are all the different things we can throw at this,” Saltsman said. “The minimum wage ended up, I think, being one check box on that list.”

McCaskill may have gotten help from a similar minimum wage initiative when she narrowly beat incumbent Republican Jim Talent in 2006 to first win her Senate seat, as the Associated Press recently noted. That measure, also known as Proposition B, passed by a whopping 3-1 margin.

McCaskill ended up defeating Talent by fewer than 50,000 votes. “We know that when an issue directly impacts your pocketbook, you’re more likely to go out and vote,” Jack Cardetti, a Democratic consultant who was part of McCaskill’s 2006 campaign, told AP.

It’s difficult to unpack the effects that other minimum wage initiatives have had (or not had) on the ballot. Such referendums did very well in 2014 and 2016, with four passing in each cycle, including in deep red states, and sometimes by huge margins. Yet the measures did not seem to do much on the whole for the Democratic Party, suggesting a lot of people can support a minimum wage hike while still casting votes for Republicans who don’t support a minimum wage hike.

But in the case of Missouri, the referendum could help turn out voters in St. Louis and Kansas City, which will be crucial to McCaskill’s re-election bid. And low-wage earners in those cities may feel a particular motivation: Both cities passed their own local minimum wage hikes last year, only to have them blocked by the GOP-controlled state legislature. Prop B gives voters a chance to force a minimum wage hike across the state.