Will minimum wage hike help sweep Nebraska Democrats into offices?

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Some Nebraska Democrats say the $1.4 million campaign to increase the state’s minimum wage could help sweep a Democrat into statewide office for the first time in years.

EARLY BIRDS: Some think the minimum wage ballot measure could help bring out enough voters to put a Democratic in office in Nebraska for the first time in years.

The group promoting a wage hike, Nebraskans for Better Wages, sent out more than 100,000 early voting applications to likely supporters. About 15,000 of them were returned.

The group has been targeting young people, women and minorities in its get-out-the-vote effort, and the efforts likely have contributed to Democrats’ early voting advantage in Omaha.

Earlier this month, Omaha Democrats led Republicans in early voters by a 3-to-1 margin. By Oct. 24, Republicans had chiseled that lead down to 2-to-1.

The last time Democrats had that kind of edge, the Omaha congressional district went with Barack Obama in 2008.

The ballot measure would jack up the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8 an hour in January and $9 an hour the following year. It is expected to win voter approval.

What’s less clear is whether the ballot issue will help tip the scales in Omaha’s tight congressional race between Democrat Brad Ashford and Republican incumbent Lee Terry. Democrats are banking on the minimum-wage proposal to help bring out more inner-city voters.

Young Democratic leaders and state Sens. Jeremy Nordquist and Danielle Conrad led the petition drive that gathered signatures to put the wage hike on Tuesday’s ballot.

Their group has raised $1.4 million, with nearly half coming from Omaha philanthropist Dick Holland and the Holland Children’s Movement. Labor unions also are pouring significant dollars into the campaign.

Some Republicans say the GOP hasn’t done enough to counter the Democrats. Leavenworth Street, a conservative political blog, predicted if Ashford wins, the ballot measure will get credit. And earlier this month when Nebraska Watchdog reported Democrats were running away with the early voter numbers, the blogger wrote:

“We’re not saying some Republicans should be in panic mode, but those numbers spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” and groused that “The Republicans had No Plan, and did not spent any money (at least not anything significant) on pulling in marginal voters for early voting.”

In mid-October, Democrats comprised half of the early voters statewide, compared to 38 percent Republicans. But Republicans have since closed that gap, pulling slightly ahead of Democrats as of Thursday.

Conrad has said the minimum-wage campaign is nonpartisan, and Nordquist said the group isn’t targeting Democrats but low-income workers usually align with Democrats .

“Our polling shows we have very strong support from Republican women,” he said.

Republican Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, for example, is helping promote the wage increase.

Still, Conrad said, “There’s no doubt that there’s an ideological difference that maybe more conservative Republicans are opposed to an increase in the minimum wage.”

Will the group’s work mark a turning point in Nebraska politics?

“There’s a shot at that,” Nordquist said. “We haven’t had a Democratic congressman since 1994, governor since 1998. It literally has been 16 years since there’s been a major Democratic (statewide constitutional) officeholder. … I do think this election is important in terms of whether or not there is a future for the Democratic Party in Nebraska.”

Nordquist notes the ballot measure wouldn’t have been a wedge issue had lawmakers passed his wage-hike bill earlier this year.

“It’s not like we cooked this up to turn out voters,” he said. “I tried to pass the bill in the Legislature and came up short. Then we turned to this petition issue.”

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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