WASHINGTON – From abortion to gay marriage, Republicans long ago staked a political claim on family values and have owned the territory since.

But Missouri plays a pivotal role this year in a Democratic strategy to capture some of that ground. It’s one of at least six states where voters will be asked to approve a minimum-wage increase in November.

“If you want to talk about family values, how about making sure people have a job so they can afford to pay their bills and spend time with their families?” said Sara Howard, a Missouri labor official and spokeswoman for Give Missourians a Raise, the group behind the state ballot issue.

There’s little mystery why the six states were chosen. Besides raising the wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for nearly a decade, each state is hosting close political contests this year, and the stakes are high.

Even the slightest uptick in Democratic turnout this fall could possibly flip control in the U.S. Senate.

In Missouri, the race to unseat Republican Sen. Jim Talent is considered a toss-up. Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, was six points ahead in the latest statewide poll. She has embraced the ballot question.

Talent hasn’t taken a position on the Missouri question. He has opposed past Democratic bills to raise the wage. He has backed some GOP efforts that would do so, but those were contingent upon cuts in business taxes and regulations, and none passed.

A similar minimum wage initiative will appear in Arizona, Montana and Ohio, where Republicans also are trying to hold on to Senate seats, and in Colorado and Nevada, where they are trying to keep control of the governors’ mansions.

The architects of the plan hope that any new voters the minimum-wage initiatives attract will be inclined to vote for Democrats.

“This is really a pretty new strategy, so it will be interesting to see what happens,” said Naomi Walker, an assistant political director at the AFL-CIO.

It’s worked before. In Washington state in 1998, a minimum-wage initiative drew more votes than any issue or candidate and helped Democrat Patty Murray win a Senate seat.

Two years ago in Nevada, the question increased turnout and helped Democrats keep control of the state assembly. But it appeared to have little impact in Florida, although voters approved the initiative.

In Ohio that year, a ballot question to outlaw same-sex marriage might have played a role in President Bush’s victory in that key state.

Still, Missouri Republican operative John Hancock said he thought the Talent-McCaskill race, not the minimum-wage question, would drive turnout in the state.

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse said that to increase turnout, there has to be controversy, and there’s little surrounding the minimum-wage campaign.

“One side shouting in a campaign doesn’t drive up ballot support,” he said.

Nearly 2 million workers earned the minimum wage or lower last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Half were under 25. Women accounted for 3 percent; men, 2 percent.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already have minimum-wage rates higher than the national rate of $5.15 an hour. It generally affects only a small number of workers, including those who work for businesses that earn less than $500,000 annually. Most states mirror the national minimum wage.

The ballot question would raise the wage in Missouri by $1.35 – to $6.50 an hour – and tie future increases to inflation. The five other states would see increases between $1 and $1.70 if their initiatives pass.

Opponents argue that raising the minimum wage amounts to government meddling in market forces and that it would actually hurt low-skilled workers by limiting business’ ability to hire them. And other workers would feel the fallout, too.

“It’s just like your household pocketbook,” said Jim Kistler, executive vice president of Associated Industries of Missouri. “If gas prices go up, you have less money to go out and do other things with.

“If your basic minimum labor costs go up, there’s less money for providing health-care benefits and retirement plans. Every time they raise these minimum costs, you’re impacting every employee at the plant.”

Supporters contend that more low-wage families and other workers are falling behind. Because of inflation, today’s $5.15 hourly pay is worth only $4.23 – two cents below the 1995 minimum wage, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

During the Senate debate on the issue last month, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts noted that minimum wage means less than $11,000 a year, below federal poverty guidelines for a family of two.

“Americans believe that no one who works hard for a living should have to live in poverty,” he said. “A job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”

Democrats have vowed that raising the wage will be among the first things they do if they retake the Senate.

The defeat of their bill last month was their ninth unsuccessful attempt since 1997. That’s the longest period that the minimum wage has been stalled since 1938, when it first passed at 25 cents an hour.

Meanwhile, Congress over that same stretch has increased its own pay nine times, by $32,000. Members earn $165,200 annually.

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Besides the minimum wage, Missouri has other initiatives on the November ballot that could color the election. One would raise cigarette taxes by 80 cents a pack to finance anti-smoking programs and other health care efforts. Another would overturn the state’s deep cuts in Medicaid, and a third would permit stem-cell treatment and research in the state.

“There’s a real possibility that you can change the shape of the election by ballot propositions,” said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron. “People are motivated to come out and vote for different reasons. Once there, they do tend to cast ballots in other races.”



(c) 2006, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060705 Minimum wage

AP-NY-07-14-06 0609EDT


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