Democratic activists are pushing aggressively to make the minimum wage an election-year issue; they helped persuade several legislatures to boost state minimum wages and want six other states to do likewise through ballot initiatives this November.
Democrats hope any extra turnout for the wage proposals from low-income voters would benefit their candidates, similar to the conservative-voter boost received by some GOP candidates in states with gay-marriage bans on their ballots in 2004.
"The right has been effective with wedge issues," said Kristina Wilfore of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "The left is actually trying to give voters something ... and get them to think about what's fair."
The federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour hasn't been raised since 1997; the latest effort to increase it was defeated in the Senate last month.
Twenty-three states, including six this year, have already have raised minimum wages above the federal level - mostly by legislative action. Workers in those places must be paid the higher state amount.
In Montana and Nevada, proposed minimum-wage increases already are on the November ballot, and signature-gathering campaigns also are expected to succeed in Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and Colorado - all states with closely contested political races.
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said the Democrats' strategy makes sense.
"They want to give their base a reason to turn out," he said. "Even many Republican voters support it - they feel no one should be able to get more from public assistance than from having a job."
Leading Democrats have endorsed the state-by-state campaign, and two possible 2008 presidential contenders, John Edwards and Hillary Rodham Clinton, appeared at recent rallies supporting the ballot measure in Ohio.
The national campaign - backed by such groups as the AFL-CIO and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) - has been two-pronged, lobbying legislatures to increase state minimum wages and resorting to ballot measures in some states where that failed.
In Arkansas and Michigan, activists called off planned ballot initiatives after the legislatures boosted the state minimum wages this year for the first time since 1997, to $6.25 an hour in Arkansas and $6.95 in Michigan.
Other states pushing their minimum wages above the federal level for the first time included Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia.
Lawmakers in Delaware, Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts voted to boost minimum-wage levels that already exceeded the federal rate. The Massachusetts bill - if signed by Republican Gov. Mitt Romney - would eventually raise the minimum wage to $8 an hour, the highest in the country. The current best is $7.63 an hour, in Washington state.
All six pending ballot measures go a step beyond the minimum wage laws of many states - they call for minimum wages to be adjusted annually for inflation, rather than stalling at a fixed level like the federal minimum wage. The initial hourly minimums proposed in the ballot measures range from $6.15 in Nevada and Montana to $6.85 in Colorado and Ohio.
The track record for such initiatives is good. A minimum-wage hike won 71 percent support among Florida voters in 2004, while in Nevada, where constitutional amendments must be approved in back-to-back elections, the wage hike won two-thirds support in its initial test two years ago.
The Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, Nevada's Harry Reid, has been campaigning for his home state's ballot measure, which offers employers the option of providing health insurance instead of paying the higher minimum wage.
Reid said no state would have to be considering minimum wages on its ballot if Republicans in Congress had raised the federal baseline. He and other Democrats have vowed to block pay raises for Congress until that happens.
Though congressional debate has largely followed party lines, there is bipartisan support among voters for higher minimum wages. A survey in April by the Pew Research Center pegged support at 83 percent nationwide, including 72 percent among Republicans.
Opponents not giving up
Opposition remains dogged, however. Bills to increase minimum wages were rejected this year in more than a dozen legislatures, and activists in Oklahoma failed to gather enough signatures to place the issue on the November ballot.
Opponents include chambers of commerce, restaurant associations and small-business owners, generally arguing that higher minimum wages will compel employers to trim their work force.
"A mandatory $1 per hour increase would put me out of business," Missouri state Rep. Jim Guest, a pizza shop owner and a Republican, told fellow lawmakers earlier this year.
The legislature proceeded to shelve a bill raising the minimum wage, but now a proposed $1.35-an-hour increase, to $6.50 an hour, is likely to be on Missouri's November ballot.
A minimum wage employee working 40 hours a week at the federal level would earn $10,712 a year - only slightly above the federally designated poverty level for an individual, and well under the poverty level for a four-person family.