Putting Partisanship Aside, Arkansas Voters May Raise the Minimum Wage

(Thomas Metthe/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

Clarke Tucker talks to supporters after winning the Democratic primary for Arkansas's Second Congressional District on May 22, 2018, in Little Rock.

This November, Arkansas voters will decide whether to increase the state’s hourly minimum wage from its current $8.50 to $11 by 2021. Only California and Massachusetts currently have minimum wages that high, and only Washington state and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages.

The measure is popular—a state poll shows 60 percent of voters are in favor of the idea. It’s nevertheless struggled to survive: The state’s attorney general, Leslie Rutledge, at first tried to keep the initiative from appearing on the ballot because of what she called imprecise language, and now it’s being challenged by the state’s Chamber of Commerce. But if it survives the court challenge, it will likely pass.

The Fairness Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helped get the Arkansas measure to the ballot, is sponsoring 11 progressive, popular measures around the country, five in states that have recently been reliably Republican. These include another minimum-wage increase in Missouri, measures to establish paid sick leave in Dallas and San Antonio, Texas, and Medicaid expansion in Idaho.

Jonathan Schleifer, the organization’s executive director, says it works with local groups to determine what measures have the most grassroots support, and believes their initiatives have a good shot at succeeding come Election Day, especially when it comes to increasing the minimum wage. Congress and state governments have been inactive on the minimum wage for so long, he says, that there’s huge popularity for raising it. “The big divide on minimum wage isn’t between Republicans and Democrats,” he says. “It’s between politicians and everyone else.”

Do such initiatives have a political spillover effect? If they’re successful this Election Day, might they provide a blue spot in the sea of red that elected Donald Trump? Are the presumably conservative voters who support these measures more progressive than many thought they were? Can Democrats make inroads with these voters by supporting economic populism?

It’s tempting to wonder, as many pundits and journalists did the last time a similar initiative succeeded in Arkansas. In 2014, however, when Arkansas voters raised their minimum wage to its current level from the federal floor of $7.25, those voters also elected Republicans across the board to state and federal office, despite the party’s tepid support for the minimum-wage measure, and, in some cases, outright opposition. Representative French Hill, the Republican who represents a district that includes Little Rock in Congress, condemned the measure as a job killer.

The political website FiveThirtyEight posited a theory that those 2014 voters were able to reconcile their votes for the measure and for Republican candidates. “[V]oters are pessimistic about the economy and want new leadership, hence their support for Republicans,” Ben Casselman wrote for the site in November of that year. “But they’re also worried about their low pay and want to see a higher minimum wage. From a policy perspective, those two votes seem at odds with one another. But they both reflect the same economic frustration.”

Economic considerations, however, can be viewed through a partisan lens. And this year, a record-low 12 percent of voters say the economy is their primary concern. Rather than “How is my pocketbook doing?” voters are concerned with what they see as the cultural and moral state of the nation, with immigration and issues of race.

Arkansas may well be a state where voters just care more about non-economic  issues when it comes to voting for candidates. There isn’t polling on how high state voters rank issues like abortion and whether it drives them to the polls, but there is some evidence that support for the newest Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, rose among Republicans even as his nomination came under fire. That surely has a lot to do with his conservative position on issues like abortion. Voters here know that a Court with Kavanaugh on it would be much more likely to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Arkansas is one of the most anti-abortion states in the country: According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Arkansans think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Evangelical Christians, of which there are plenty in Arkansas, stay steadfastly Republican in large part because of the party’s opposition to abortion, and it was the evangelical population that helped finally turn the state Republican in 2012 and 2014. On that score, the state government has delivered: In 2015, Arkansas passed a law prohibiting medication abortions, one of the strictest in the nation, which has survived several court challenges.

While voters have supported a minimum-wage increase, it has hardly been central to their political preferences. Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, told me that his work showed that voters knew little about the minimum-wage measure before voting in 2014. “It was not driving them to the ballot box, it was just something they supported when they got there,” Barth says. That also means voters were, and are, unlikely to know how any particular candidate stands on raising the minimum wage. “Democrats don’t see it as that kind of salvation. … It doesn’t have that same kind of power that some people thought it did at some point.”

Republican French Hill, facing a credible challenge from Democratic candidate Clarke Tucker this year, came out against the popular minimum-wage measure again. “Raising the minimum wage costs jobs and opportunities to start a career, particularly for those entering the workforce or trying to get their first job,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week. “I have dedicated my time in Congress to advocating for skilled workforce development to prepare Arkansans for good-paying jobs in long-term careers that pay well above the minimum wage.” Whether that moves voters from his column to Tucker’s, though, remains to be seen.

If voters again vote for an initiative that enjoys broad support while at the same time voting against the party that uniformly supports the measure, it might just be a sign of how tribal partisanship has become. Voters elect their representatives without regard for, or even despite, where they stand on some issues.

For Kristen Foster of Arkansans for a Fair Wage, the local group coordinating with the Fairness Project, supporting a minimum-wage initiative is a way to do an end-run around the partisanship that would normally kill such a proposal if it came before the legislature. Arkansas is a poor state, and 300,000 residents would instantly make more money if the minimum wage were raised, she says. “I think we so often get caught up in the rhetoric in this issue and forget about the people,” she says. “Teacher’s aides and custodians and home health-care workers: All different walks of life, who will positively impacted by this. It’s about remembering who this is about. It’s about Arkansas workers.”

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