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The Issue That Could Take Down Mitch McConnell

It’s been noted several times since Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes announced her challenge of Senator Mitch McConnell that she is doing her utmost to present herself as the most moderate of Democrats, the sort who would get no closer to Barack Obama than to exchange a cordial nod from across the street. And it’s true that Grimes has distanced herself from Obamacare and the administration’s moves against the coal industry.

But those defensive gestures make all the more remarkable one element of her platform: vigorous and repeated calls for raising the minimum wage. This was what most jumped out at me in Grimes’ eye-catching introductory video—near the end, as Grimes is reaching  a crescendo in her riff against McConnell, she criticizes him “for opposing raising the  minimum wage over and over again while you became a multi-millionaire in public office.” I heard it again when I was in western Kentucky over the weekend for the annual Fancy Farm political festival, where Grimes invoked the minimum wage in both her speech at a party dinner and in her broadside against McConnell at Fancy Farm itself.

What to make of this? Part of this emphasis can be attributed to the Kentucky context: It’s easy to forget that Kentucky has, for a southern state, a surprisingly strong organized-labor presence, with all that brings with it. The state is not yet “right to work,” a rather astonishing fact considering that seemingly more pro-union states such as Michigan and Indiana have already made that switch. And it has a “prevailing wage” law that dates back to 1940, setting minimum pay levels for state public works projects, not unlike the Davis-Bacon law for federal projects. The state’s labor-friendly laws are under constant threat, but with Democrats clinging onto power in Frankfort, they have hung on even as the tide elsewhere has turned against unions. “We have a tradition of very good business-labor relations,” state auditor Adam Edelen, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, told me at the Friday evening dinner, where he stressed the prevailing-wage law in his own speech. “A lot of people in Kentucky are in organized labor or just one or two generations removed.” Calling for raising the federal minimum wage also has special punch in Kentucky because the state, despite the aforementioned labor-friendliness, has not managed to raise its minimum wage above the federal one, which still sits at a paltry $7.25.

But it seems to me that Grimes’ emphasis on raising the minimum wage has resonance beyond the Bluegrass State. It is another sign that we have found ourselves in a moment of raised consciousness about the plight of the low-wage worker. It should not have taken this long, given for how many years now the share of low-wage jobs in the workforce has been spreading. But it’s better late than never. Fast-food workers are engaging in widespread protests for better pay, even without the formal structure of a union; comedians are mocking McDonald’s for its guide on how to survive on the minimum wage; economists and commentators across the spectrum are deploring how many of the jobs being produced in our economic recovery are low-paid ones. Obama made another call for raising the minimum wage (which he featured prominently in his last State of the Union address) in his recent visit to an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, where many workers aren’t making much above of the minimum.

The problem, of course, is that proposals to raise the federal minimum wage aren’t going anywhere in a Republican-controlled House and a Senate where McConnell wields the filibuster. But this is why Grimes’ flogging of the issue is a big deal. If she can get traction with it even in a relatively conservative state, it will prompt Democrats elsewhere to start talking it up as well, and Republicans may eventually tire of having it used as a bludgeon against them and go along with an increase.

The politics of the issue are particularly interesting given its potential for bringing back into the Democratic coalition some of the downscale white voters who have famously been deserting the party for years now, particularly in the South and Appalachia. In Washington, Republicans may see minimum wage increases as a sop to the Democrats’ minority base, but in Kentucky, which is only eight percent black and where poverty is most endemic in the state’s mostly-white eastern Appalachian end, it’s an issue that applies no less to whites. If Grimes can use the issue to bring onto her side some of the legions of working-class whites who have been tilting Republican in national elections or, more likely, simply sitting elections out, it would be a harbinger that all is not necessarily lost for Democrats in that whole swath of the country. It’ll also be reason to ask: Why is the party only now playing this card?

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.