Shifting Stance, Some GOP Candidates Back State Minimum Wage Hikes As free-market conservatives, Republicans are philosophically opposed to raising the minimum wage. But a handful in tight races are having second thoughts.

Shifting Stance, Some GOP Candidates Back State Minimum Wage Hikes

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Today the Los Angeles City Council voted to raise the minimum wage for some workers. There are many such proposals across the country, and while similar legislation in Congress has been blocked, state and local efforts are attracting some surprising supporters - Republican candidates. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: For Democrats, a higher minimum wage is at the center of their election-year economic agenda, alongside pay equity, infrastructure investment and college affordability. President Obama talks about it a lot.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Either you're in favor of raising wages for hard-working Americans or you're not.

LIASSON: Sounds simple, but this is politics. In several battleground races this year, Republicans are in the midst of a subtle sea-change on this issue. As free-market conservatives, Republicans are philosophically opposed to raising the wage and republican candidates are against raising the federal minimum wage, but just listen to Bruce Rauner, running for governor of Illinois.

BRUCE RAUNER: I have said on a number of occasions that it's better to have a lower minimum wage than no minimum wage.

LIASSON: But Rauner says under certain conditions, if, say, the state passed tort reform and tax reform, he would support it.

RAUNER: If we do those changes, we can afford to have a higher minimum wage in Illinois.

LIASSON: Tom Cotton is in a tight race for Senate in Arkansas. He opposes a higher federal minimum wage, but he feels differently about a state minimum wage referendum.

TOM COTTON: I'm going to vote for that initiated act as a citizen, but as Arkansas' next United States senator, I'm going to make sure that we have a healthy economy.

LIASSON: And in Alaska in this Republican primary debate, senate candidate Dan Sullivan couldn't have been clearer when he was asked this question.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'd like to know how you plan to vote in November on the following initiative - an act increasing the Alaskan minimum wage to $8.75 per hour, effective January 1, 2015. Mr. Sullivan?

DAN SULLIVAN: No.

LIASSON: But now, Sullivan, too, has changed his mind. Illinois, Arkansas, and Alaska all have something in common. In all three, there are minimum wage initiatives on the ballot, and they are all expected to pass by big margins. Democrats, who are hoping to use the referenda to get more of their supporters to the polls, say these Republicans have had a foxhole conversion. Ted Strickland is the former governor of Ohio.

TED STRICKLAND: Most people understand that when someone embraces a policy they have previously rejected and they do it just a short time before an election, that they're acting out of political expediency rather than out of conviction and courage.

LIASSON: In this case, what Republicans consider to be good policy - letting the free market work - is not good politics. Republican strategist, Sara Fagen, says this is a fight Republicans want to avoid.

SARA FAGEN: A good middle ground for many candidates has been to say, I would support a state increase, but I don't support a federal increase. That allows them to be core to their economic philosophy but still be reasonable to voters who are demanding that the minimum wage be increased.

LIASSON: The embrace of state minimum wage hikes is an example of how Republicans are choosing their battles more carefully this year - moving to the center on issues like contraception or the minimum wage. And that has partisans on both sides taking some unusual positions. In some states, Republican legislators voted to raise the state wage to avoid having the issue on the ballot. In Alaska, Democrats and the legislature blocked a bill so that the issue would be on the ballot this fall. Progressive activist, Brad Woodhouse, says these ballot propositions will help Democrats up to a point.

BRAD WOODHOUSE: You can target drop off voters who maybe will only come out because they think it's in their economic interest. You hope that if they come out and vote to increase the minimum wage that they'll vote for the Democrat. I do think it has the potential in a close race to help decide that race, but I wouldn't put all our chips in the basket of these ballot initiatives.

LIASSON: Academics who study ballot referendum say that's probably a good idea. No minimum-wage initiative has ever determined the outcome of a state race, says John Matsusaka, the director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

JOHN MATSUSAKA: The evidence is pretty good that ballot propositions increase turnout overall. It's not so clear, though, that ballot propositions help one party or the other. Democrats might get a bump from this but the people who've looked close at these data have a hard time finding that it makes a big difference.

LIASSON: The bottom line - these initiatives are very good for people who want to raise the minimum wage, but they're less useful as a political tool for Democrats looking for help in a Republican-leaning political landscape. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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