There’s no shortage of indications of American voters’ exasperation with their elected officials. Approval ratings for Congress are abysmally low — far lower, even, than the dismal ratings for Democratic President Barack Obama, whom Republican congressional candidates across the country bashed in their successful effort in the Nov. 4 elections to win control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House.
But sometimes, it seems that the politicians are entitled to feel frustration — or at least, puzzlement — regarding the voters.
Consider some of the results of those Nov. 4 elections. In Alaska and Arkansas (among other states), voters turned out incumbent Democratic senators in favor of Republican challengers. In South Dakota, a Republican won a seat previously in Democratic hands. And in Nebraska, a retiring Republican senator was replaced by another Republican.
Not surprising: It was a good day for Republicans across the country. But in all four of those states, voters also approved proposals to increase the state minimum wage.
Now, the minimum wage isn’t usually considered one of those issues, such as gun control or abortion, that by itself can determine a voter’s choice. And Democratic candidates did not typically base their campaigns on it (in retrospect, they may wish they had). But the issue is a pretty clear point of distinction between Democrats, who generally support increases in the minimum wage to improve living conditions for those who earn it, and Republicans, who generally oppose increases as a threat to business competitiveness and employment growth.
Nor are economic issues of little import to voters. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted just before the election, “job creation and economic growth” tied as the top issue for voters. The other concern at No. 1 was breaking the political gridlock in Washington, which may explain an impulse to give one party — the Republicans — a majority in both houses, notwithstanding the Democrat in the White House.
The fudge factors aside, the vote totals are striking. In Arkansas, incumbent Mark Pryor, rated as one of the most conservative Democratic senators — ironically, he voted against a Democratic proposal to increase the federal minimum wage — was routed by his Republican opponent by 17 percentage points. But nearly two-thirds of those same Arkansas voters supported a boost in the state’s minimum wage.
In Alaska, the Senate election was close, with the Republican candidate edging the Democratic incumbent. The minimum-wage vote was not, with an even bigger percentage than in Arkansas backing an increase. Nebraska and South Dakota provided smaller majorities for the hikes, but clear margins nonetheless.
Apparently, a rigid consistency was not paramount in the voters’ minds. Something else must have been, such as profound dissatisfaction with Obama.
The U.S. Senate race in Louisiana has not been decided yet, and there’s been no minimum-wage proposal on the ballot, but there’s still food for head-scratching thought.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, is outpolling three-term incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu in their head-to-head matchup in the Dec. 6 runoff, after Landrieu barely edged Cassidy in the Nov. 4 open primary. Cassidy has harped on Landrieu’s solidarity with Obama, and he has frequently criticized Obama’s signature health-care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as “Obamacare.”
But a mid-October poll by the University of New Orleans shows that while Louisiana voters prefer Cassidy in the runoff, they harbor ambivalent feelings about “Obamacare.”
Overall, they don’t like it. But by better than a 2-to-1 margin, they think the state should accept expansion of Medicaid under the act — something that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has rejected and that Cassidy deplores, while Landrieu favors it. They like some provisions of “Obamacare,” such as directing insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, but they think it’s OK for companies to cancel policies for people who get sick. They support a universal coverage requirement — they just don’t want individuals fined for failing to buy insurance.
When asked how they thought the national economy had performed over the past year, 27 percent said it had improved and the same number said it had stayed about the same — and 44 percent said it had worsened.
While wage growth may be relatively stagnant, there’s little question the overall economy has steadily strengthened over the past year and for several years before that.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregRobertsDC.