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Did Thom Tillis just wreck his Senate bid by opposing a minimum wage? 

Americans United for Change, a progressive-labor group, brought their campaign--and bus--to Raleigh in April.

Photo by Bob Geary

Americans United for Change, a progressive-labor group, brought their campaign--and bus--to Raleigh in April.

Americans divide into two camps. One, the free enterprisers, rejects the minimum wage. The other, the interventionists, likes what Franklin D. Roosevelt said when he signed the first federal wage minimum-wage law in 1933: "No business which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country."

Last week, after winning the Republican primary election for U.S. Senate, Thom Tillis put himself inalterably in the first camp. In an interview on MSNBC, Tillis was asked about increasing the minimum wage, an effort backed by President Obama and the Democrats but rejected by every Senate Republican.

Tillis said there should be no federal minimum wage in the first place. "Minimum wage decisions should be made by the states," he said.

Well, should North Carolina increase its minimum wage? Tillis was asked.

"I think that's a decision the legislature needs to make," Tillis answered.

Uh, OK, Mr. Tillis, since you're the Speaker of the N.C. House, do you think it should be increased? Tillis was asked.

"What I want to do is to create jobs that make minimum wage irrelevant," Tillis finally said after some hemming and hawing. Instead of the "defeatist mentality" of the minimum wage, Tillis added, he's for "high-paying jobs."

It was trickle-down with a vengeance, but my purpose isn't to recite all the reasons Tillis is wrong on the economics. Most people already know that he's wrong and that raising the minimum wage would increase the pay, directly or indirectly, of millions of working people—some 27 million, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

No, what Tillis said was, first and worst, stupid politics.

It was so stupid, Tillis may have ruined his chance to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan with a single blunder. I say this for three reasons:

One, Americans by a 3-to-1 majority according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, favor not just the idea of a federal minimum wage but increasing it from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 by 2016, as is proposed in the Democrats' (Harkin-Miller) legislation. In North Carolina, an Elon University Poll last week found that 45 percent of voters favor a $10.10 minimum wage and another 14 percent are for hiking it to $9. In short, the minimum wage isn't in question, only the amount.

Two, while Tillis has given the voters a great many other reasons to oppose his election, none is as clear or easily understood by virtually every potential voter as the minimum-wage issue. And while Hagan's positions on some other issues are "balanced"—that is, hard for voters to understand—she is all-in for the minimum-wage hike. She's for it. Strongly.

Which leads to the third reason. The Hagan-Tillis race will be determined by voter turnout. Hagan won in 2008, a presidential election year, with 2,249,311 votes. In 2010, a mid-term election, Democrat Elaine Marshall lost with 1,145,074 votes. Fix those numbers in your mind. The drop-off for the Democratic nominee between a presidential election year and the mid-term was half.

Republicans saw a drop-off, too, but much less: As between 2008 loser Elizabeth Dole and Sen. Richard Burr, the 2010 winner, the GOP turnout from presidential to mid-term dropped by just one-fourth (1,887,510 for Dole to 1,458,046 for Burr).

The unfortunate fact for Democrats, as scholar/journlist Sasha Issenberg has shown, is that Republicans have more of what he terms "reflex" voters—the kind who show up for every election. Democrats have lots of "unreliables," who respond to an exciting presidential race but are otherwise unlikely to show up.

How do you reach the unreliables? Issenberg, in the April 27 issue of The New Republic ("How the Democrats Can Avoid Going Down This November") points to the ground game. Democrats must put paid organizers in the field—as they're doing in North Carolina. The organizers' job is to recruit and direct an army of dedicated volunteers. The volunteers, in turn, locate, persuade and turn out the hard-to-get.

It's not rocket science, despite the title of Issenberg's book (The Victory Lab). But it does depend on that army of dedicated volunteers. Think Obama, 2008.

I said that Tillis has given voters other reasons to dislike him. He's a climate-change denier. Sign up the environmentalists. He's for a personhood amendment and thinks states can ban some forms of birth control. Sign up the women. He pushed through the Voter ID law and repeal of the Racial Justice Act, and—well, space doesn't permit me to give you all the reasons African-American activists will work to defeat him. Ditto teachers. Ditto Latinos and the LGBT community.

An army, there will be.

As jazzed as the volunteers will be about their own issues, however, when they knock on the door of the typical unreliable voter, it may not work to pitch climate change or the evils of the Voter ID law as the reason why it's so critical to vote in 2014. (Especially since the photo ID part of the voter law doesn't take effect until 2016.)

But in my expert pundit's opinion, if Hagan's volunteers lead with the fact that Tillis is against the minimum wage—any minimum wage—they won't have to say a whole lot more about why he's the candidate of the rich and Hagan the candidate of working people and people who want to work—for a decent wage.

In short, the minimum wage is a reliable issue to turn on—and turn out—the unreliable voters upon whom Hagan's fate, and the Democrats' hold on the Senate, depends.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Tea for the Tillisman."

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