LINCOLN, Neb. — Backers of a ballot measure that seeks to raise Nebraska's minimum wage say the effort could drive up turnout and improve the chances of Democratic candidates in some high-profile races.
The measure, which was placed on the Nov. 4 ballot through the initiative petition process, would increase the minimum wage by 75 cents an hour to $8 in January 2015, and to $9 in 2016. It's the first initiative to appear on a statewide ballot since 2008.
Supporters of the measure, backed primarily by left-leaning groups and unions, are quick to note their main purpose was to raise the minimum wage, not help Democrats — though they're hopeful that will happen too.
"I think there's a benefit for any candidate who supports raising the minimum wage," said Dan Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party. "We believe there's strong support in the state for raising the minimum wage, and we support it. That's not the case among the Republican candidates."
Marvin stressed the issue wouldn't have gone to the ballot if lawmakers had approved an increase proposed in the Legislature this year. Despite the potential benefit to Democrats, he said, the action was motivated by a desire to help low-income people.
"This was done out of frustration that the regular channels for moving legislation were just stuck," he said. "There's frustration that nothing's getting done."
Still, if the measure raises turnout in a non-presidential election, it could help Democrats who often see participation among party members decline in off-year contests. It also could give a boost to Democrats who have made the minimum wage a focus of their Nebraska campaigns, as other candidates have done across the country.
With the measure on the ballot, Republicans will have to defend their opposition to a wage increase.
In the governor's contest, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook supports the measure while Republican Pete Ricketts opposes it. Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Dave Domina favors it, while Republican Ben Sasse has come out against it. In the hotly contested Omaha-based 2nd Congressional District, Democratic challenger Brad Ashford has endorsed the wage increase; incumbent Republican Lee Terry opposes it.
"I certainly think that having an issue like this that impacts so many families will drive turnout," said state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a Democrat and one of the leaders of the minimum wage campaign. "It's not a partisan driving of turnout. It's a driving of voters who feel disenfranchised from the political system, who are struggling for a reason to come out."
Nordquist said he expects the issue will appeal to younger and low-income voters.
In the past, minimum wage proposals submitted to voters have been approved by large margins. Voters in New Jersey passed an $8.25 hourly minimum wage last year, and in 2006 voters approved minimum wage increases in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.
In Missouri, the 2006 minimum wage ballot measure helped boost turnout in a midterm election, said Jim Kottmeyer, a former executive director of that state's Democratic Party. As in Nebraska this year, the Missouri election included a high-profile U.S. Senate contest.
Post-election internal polling from the Missouri election showed the minimum wage measure motivated many voters who otherwise wouldn't have participated, Kottmeyer said.
In the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Claire McCaskill and Republican incumbent Jim Talent, McCaskill repeatedly highlighted Talent's opposition to a wage increase in television ads and in debates.
"People generally dislike politics, and somebody who has an R or a D behind their name may not be enough to motivate them," Kottmeyer said. "But people care about issues, because issues matter."
A ballot measure alone usually isn't enough to swing a race, but it could force candidates to take a position on an issue they otherwise might have ignored, said Josh Levin, vice president of programs for the left-leaning Ballot Strategy Initiative Center. Levin said similar ballot measures have gained traction because state lawmakers have refused to act on the minimum wage.
"Anytime you have a policy that's broadly popular, and your elected representatives aren't willing to take action themselves, it's very frustrating for those who support a hike in the minimum wage," Levin said.
Nearly 135,000 people signed the minimum wage petition. If approved, Nebraska would join 22 other states with minimum wages above the federal minimum. Nebraska's wage was last increased in 2009.
Doug Kagan, president of the group Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, which opposes the wage increase, said the issue could be overshadowed by other races.
"I think the attention will be concentrated on the candidates," Kagan said.