Watching the recent fireworks in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, where presumptive Republican nominee Tom Emmer is under increasing fire for supporting a lower minimum wage for restaurant workers, I can’t help but be reminded of Washington state’s 2008 gubernatorial contest, in which a similar statement by Republican nominee Dino Rossi arguably proved to be the turning point in a race that had appeared to be tilting in his favor.
By the end of September 2008, in the midst of the short-lived Palin bounce, polls showed challenger Rossi closing the gap on incumbent Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire, and perhaps even taking a small lead. Republicans were ebullient and Democrats more than a little nervous as the rematch of our bitter, statistically-tied 2004 contest headed into the homestretch.
And then everything changed.
As evident in his current senate campaign, Rossi rarely makes the mistake of clearly addressing issues on which he is out of step with voters, but during a candidate debate near Blaine WA, and perhaps flush with overconfidence from recent events, Rossi finally tripped up. As first reported by Josh Feit in his pre-PubliCola, exclusive election coverage here on HA, the candidates were asked if the minimum wage was supposed to be a “living wage,” and whether either candidate would consider scaling it back.
“I don’t know of anybody getting rich on the minimum wage,” Gregoire told the hostile crowd (the debate was sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and the questions came from their membership). “The people of Washington are struggling. They go to the gas pumps and can’t afford to fill up the car, they go to the grocery and can’t afford to put food on the table…Washingtonians need to be able to provide for their families. Plenty of people are working minimum wage jobs that need to provide for their families, and I want to stand with Washingtonians.”
She said she supported the voter-approved minimum wage, $8.07 an hour. She also said she supported training programs for teen workers.
Rossi took the opposite point of view. Touting his Washington Restaurant Association endorsement (the most adamant opponents of the minimum wage), he said: “The minimum wage was not meant to be a family wage. It’s meant to be an entry level wage.”
Josh went on to write about a conversation he’d had that night with a Blaine convenience store clerk who had just sold Rossi a can of beans, some Certs and a Red Bull. “I’m a Republican. I like the Palin thing,” the clerk told Josh, explaining why he planned to vote for Rossi. But when Josh recounted the candidates’ exchange over the minimum wage, the suddenly not-so-star-struck clerk got pissed off:
“If he lowers it,” he said, “I don’t want to vote for him. I’d be cutting my head off. I don’t want to demote myself.”
Suddenly, WA’s highest in the nation minimum wage became one of the hottest issues in the campaign, and within days, the governor had cut a new ad bashing Rossi with it.
It didn’t take a convenience store clerk or a focus group to tell you that this was a bad issue for Rossi. Washington’s minimum wage was tied to inflation via a citizens initiative that passed by a two to one margin only a decade earlier, a policy that remains widely popular with nearly everybody except, well, restaurant owners and other low-wage employers. But rather than attempting damage control, Rossi’s people only stepped in it deeper.
When the state Dems sent an operative to stand outside a Rossi rally in Ellensberg, holding a sign criticizing Rossi’s support for slashing the minimum wage, Rossi’s top economic adviser, Kittitas County Republican chair Matt Manweller (known here on HA as “the Nutty Professor”), simply went ballistic. Prof. Manweller vehemently defended Rossi’s position while angrily attacking the young protester and the 300,000 minimum wage workers he claimed to represent.
“You and those 300,000 people are dumber than a post,” Manweller yelled. Go ahead, watch it. It’s kinda stunning.
The minimum wage remained a focal point throughout the remainder of the campaign as Gregoire gradually pulled into a commanding lead. When the ballots were tallied, Gregoire had won by a comfortable 195,000-vote margin (6.5%), compared to her disputed 133-vote victory in 2004.
No doubt there were other factors that led to Gregoire’s victory, but the minimum wage provided an invaluable toehold at a time when she was quickly losing ground, and proved a potent message for differentiating the two candidates on economic issues at a time of great economic uncertainty.
And it provides a lesson you’d think that Emmer and his fellow Minnesota Republicans might want to learn.