Why Red States Voted Blue on the Minimum Wage

South Dakota, Arkansas, and Nebraska are solidly conservative, but residents of all three states voted in the midterm elections to raise their states’ minimum wages. That’s paradoxical, given that the standard conservative position is that higher minimum wages kill jobs by making low-skilled workers too expensive for employers to hire.

Voters also passed a big hike in Alaska, which leans Republican. There was a non-binding referendum vote in favor of a higher minimum in Democratic-leaning Illinois.

What explains conservatives’ support for a liberal cause? I spoke with two experts—one who supports higher minimum wages and one who opposes them—to get their takes:

“If you want to know a real brass tacks reason” the initiatives won, says Michael Saltsman, research director of the anti-increase Employment Policies Institute, it’s that forces in favor spent heavily in the three states and forces opposed spent little to nothing. Nebraskans for Better Wages spent about $1.4 million in the year through Oct. 20, while “opposing the wage hike there was no registered ballot committee,” says Saltsman.

In Arkansas, says Saltsman, Give Arkansas a Raise spent $1.1 million from Oct. 1 through Oct. 25, while additional pro-increase groups with creative names such as Give Arkansas a Raise Now and Give Us a Raise spent a further half-million dollars. Like Nebraska, Arkansas had no registered ballot committee opposed to raising the wage floor. South Dakota was the only state with an organized opposition, and it turned in the closest margin, he says. Candidates in the three states who opposed raising the minimum wage won election, which shows that “it’s not a political kiss of death,” Saltsman says.

Why wasn’t there more organized opposition? Saltsman says that as for the Employment Policies Institute, “it’s not our goal to fight individual ballot campaigns in these states.” And he said state business groups didn’t mobilize because the issue is important to only a minority of their members. Restaurants and hotels are among the biggest employers of minimum-wage workers. “There’s a lack of issue and interest coalitions that come together,” he says.

Arun Ivatury, senior campaign strategist for the NELP Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the National Employment Law Project, turns Saltsman’s argument on its head: “There was no organized opposition because the other side knows a losing fight when it sees one.” Ivatury notes that in Arkansas, Republican Tom Cotton came out in favor of raising the state wage floor during his successful Senate campaign. (He still opposes raising the federal minimum.) “Candidates realized the need to change their positions very quickly,” Ivatury says.

“These measures would have won, no matter what the spending was. The effort was to try to run up the score a little bit” to make an impression on other states and on members of Congress who oppose a federal minimum wage hike, says Ivatury. “The fact that the initiatives are passing with high margins and in very conservative-leaning states shows that the issue is overwhelmingly popular.”

Here’s how the votes broke down:

Alaska: 69 percent in favor, 31 percent opposed
Increase to $9.75 an hour by Jan. 1, 2016.

Arkansas: 65 percent to 35 percent
Increase to $8.50 by Jan. 1, 2017

Nebraska: 59 percent to 41 percent
Increase to $9 by Jan. 1, 2016

South Dakota: 55 percent to 45 percent
Increase to $8.50 by Jan. 1, 2015

Illinois: 67 percent to 33 percent (non-binding)
Increase to $10 by Jan. 1, 2015

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