In some corners of the Democratic Party, there is genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of rolling into the November elections with a sequence of votes that could expose Republicans to charges of siding with the wealthy and being indifferent to the plight of small businesses and the poor. A bill to help the latter (small businesses) with a series of tax incentives passed through Congress -- with minimal GOP support -- shortly after the August recess. But a vote on the Bush tax cuts -- which would have cast the GOP as protectors of upper-level income -- never materialized. With it went the opportunity to crystallize a major election theme, party strategists fretted.
Now, however, a series of statements from Republican Senate candidates has handed Democrats an opportunity similar to the one they just punted. Late last week, Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon was quoted as saying, in vague terms, that she'd be open to the idea of adjusting the federal minimum wage laws. That was followed on Monday with a much more declarative statement from Alaska Republican Joe Miller, who called the minimum wage laws outside the constitutional purview of Congress. And as the website Hotline pointed out, businessman John Raese, who is running for the Senate in West Virginia, "has been most adamant in opposing the minimum wage" while in Washington, Republican Dino Rossi "has a checkered history on the minimum wage."
Taken individually, the comments are ample kindling for Democratic candidates to light up in their campaigns. On a broader level, the party has a closing pitch to make.
"Joe Miller followed Linda McMahon into the snakepit of minimum wage," said Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Last week, Republicans in Washington tried to stop the outsourcing of American jobs. This week Republicans seem intent on getting rid of the minimum wage. What exactly do Republicans have against America workers?"
In an economic climate where unemployment is rampant and underemployment is equally prevalent, calling for adjustments to minimum wage levels would seem like a political third rail -- though the conservative counter-argument is that businesses would hire more if they could pay less. But the larger effect of this meme may be more about organizing Democrats than exposing potential weaknesses among Republicans.
While the labor community has been active in organizing its members for 2010, it remains concerned that electoral enthusiasm might wane. There have been a host of votes over the year to give workers a real sense of the divide between the two parties. But union officials believe a debate over minimum wage is one of the more galvanizing.
"In their own words, candidate after candidate is showing working families what is at stake in this election," said AFL-CIO spokesman Eddie Vale. "In this tough economy, four Republican Senate candidates have said they want to take away the minimum wage. Their vision of fair pay for a hard day's work is to give millions to the very rich and Wall Street."