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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Obama Should Not Accept ‘Lame Duck’ Status

President Obama

(Reuters/Jim Young)

The Republicans have claimed the US Senate, extended their majority in the US House and secured more than their share of victories in state and local races. Now every effort will be made by the many critics of Barack Obama to employ the results of the 2014 midterm elections in the work of writing the president off as a lame duck.

But sixth-year setbacks are common for presidents. And Obama need not let this one define him. Indeed, he has a duty to defend the mandates he received in 2008 and 2012.

This is the point of beginning for the final stage of Obama’s presidency. He can shape the narrative. But if he fails to do so, others will. And in so doing they will diminish not just the president but the will of the people who elected him twice.

This will have less to do with policy—since a gridlocked Washington is likely to remain gridlocked on many issues—than with personalities and palace intrigues that so appeal to political and media elites. Yet, the defining process is significant, as it can influence decisions about whether to negotiate or veto, to hold firm for principles or to search for “grand bargains,” to rally the base or bend to the opposition.

Even before the results started coming in on Tuesday night, much of the pre-election prognostication had Obama headed for full lame-duck status. Never mind that the Republicans had most of the advantages going into the 2014 election cycle: fewer Senate seats to defend, a pattern of Democratic retirements in Republican-leaning states such as Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia; plenty of billionaire friends and corporate allies; and a second-term president with reduced approval ratings. There was never any doubt that a shift in control of the chamber was going to herald a full flurry of “definitive” statements and how Obama has been checked and balanced for the final quarter of his eight years in office.

But does a poor election result necessarily mark the end of a president’s relevance? Should a president whose party fails to perform be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Is this what history proposes?

Actually, no.

Consider Ronald Reagan. His Republican allies lost control of the Senate in the midterm election of 1986, the sixth year of his presidency. They went into that year’s contest with fifty-three seats and came out with forty-five. The House was already run by the Democrats, and the eight-seat shift in the Senate was dramatic. Yet most Republicans would tell you that Reagan remained a significant figure in American politics; and, it should be noted, in 1989 he handed the presidency off to another Republican president.

Consider Dwight Eisenhower. Going into the midterm elections of 1958, the sixth year of his presidency, the Senate was almost evenly divided (forty-nine Democrats versus forty-seven Republicans in a chamber where a number of Southern Democrats frequently aligned with the Republicans). In that election, Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats. Many of the new senators were swept in on a wave of frustration with Eisenhower’s farm policies, as were many of the new members of the House—where a solid Democratic majority of 234-201 was transformed by the 1958 election into an overwhelming 283-153 advantage. Yet, Eisenhower, whose approval rating had dropped into the forties in 1958, rebounded to finish his presidency with influence on Capitol Hill and approval ratings that frequently topped 60 percent. In the fall of late 1958, he secured confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice (Potter Stewart); in 1959 he formally welcomed two new states into the union (Alaska and Hawaii); in 1961, he delivered a mighty fine speech about the military-industrial complex, opening a debate that continues to this day.

Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In the midterm elections of 1938, the sixth year of his presidency, FDR’s Democrats suffered setbacks nationwide. Republicans gained seven US Senate seats, eighty-one US House seats and a dozen governorships in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Roosevelt’s Progressive and Farmer-Labor allies lost governorships and congressional seats in Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The New Deal has been halted,” declared veteran New York Times columnist Arthur Krock. Two years later, however, Roosevelt became the only president ever to re-elected to a third term—winning 55 percent of the popular vote and a 449-82 advantage in the Electoral College.

Of course, the political dynamics of today are different from those of 1986 or 1958 or 1938. The political process is always evolving. But the thing to remember is that presidents can and do play a role in that evolution. They are far better positioned than other political figures to shape it. This is the lesson of history. It is also the prospect that remains on the table now that the 2014 midterm elections have—with due respect to the Louisiana Senate runoff and a few potential recounts—produced a result.

That result is important. But it need not be definitional.

Reagan, Eisenhower and Roosevelt were all written off, decried and dismissed by their critics. Yet they decided that they—not their foes—would write the last chapters of their presidencies.

Presidents have lost the Senate. Presidents have lost the Congress as a whole. And yet, they have governed—sometimes by going to the people and rallying the great mass of Americans to their side, sometimes by outmaneuvering the opposition of Capitol Hill, sometimes by bargaining and bending and compromising.

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Obama has plenty of openings to define the last two years of his tenure. The Republicans have not won veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate; the president can still say “no” to them. And on a lot of major issues, that will be the right move. Indeed, for Americans who fret about the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress, the best response will be to push and prod the president to stand strong against the economic and social compromises that might be demanded conservative Republicans and by corporate Democrats—and that will surely be cheered on by the newspaper editorial pages that seem to think any deal is better than the dreaded gridlock.

The president should refuse to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. He should use his executive authority to suspend deportations, and to force a real discussion about comprehensive immigration reform, He should reject, absolutely, every proposal to undermine Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

If the president’s resolve begins to weaken on any of these issues, activists should not hesitate to demand that he recognize what is at stake—not just politically but practically for the great mass of Americans who do not have the resources to buy elections or pay for lobbyists. These are the people who elected Barack Obama president in 2008 and 2012. They gave him a mandate and he has a responsibility, to his supporters and to himself, to defend it with his veto pen, his executive orders and his bully pulpit.

None of this bars the prospect of reasonable compromise and cooperation. But Obama and his allies should be determined to assure that it is the president, not his opposition, that defines the terms.

Things have changed in Washington as a result of the 2014 election, and they will change a good deal more in the weeks and months to come. That is certain. But how things change, for Obama and the Democrats, for Mitch McConnell and the Republicans, remains up for grabs. That may be unsettling, even disappointing, for those who believe that every election is the most important in history. But history tells us that presidents can and do survive midterm setbacks. Indeed, it is the ability to survive and even to thrive in the aftermath of a midterm setback, that has characterized this country’s most remembered and frequently revered presidents.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why Obama should double down.

Why Tonight Is Not Just About Senate Control

Florida Governor Rick Scott

Florida Governor Rick Scott, along with many other Republican governors, is in trouble. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

If Republicans make significant gains in Senate races Tuesday, then politics will be following pattern. Presidents who are elected by big margins initially and then re-elected comfortably tend to have a lousy time of it in their sixth years.

Ronald Reagan won big in 1980 and won bigger in 1984. He had the Senate with him until 1986, but then the Republicans lost it—bad. Democrats picked up eight seats and took the chamber.

Dwight Eisenhower won big in 1952 and won big in 1956. He had a Republican Senate on and off through much of his tenure, and even the when the Democrats were in charge the margin was close. Then came 1958. Democrats picked up a remarkable fifteen seats (including two from the new state of Alaska). They also secured an overwhelming 283-153 majority in the House of Representatives.

Franklin Roosevelt won big in 1932 and even bigger in 1936. Then came 1938. Republicans gained seven US Senate seats and eighty-one US House seats.

If Republicans pick up the six seats they need to secure clear control of the Senate tonight—or after runoff elections in Louisiana and Georgia—that will be big news. But the real question is what happens with the governorships.

In a wave election, the party that wins big in congressional races also wins big in the states. That’s what happened in 2010, when Republicans took the US House, shifted plenty of Senate seats and made big gains in statehouses. That’s also what happened in a number of historic wave elections.

But will it happen tonight?

It could. According to the Real Clear Politics “poll of polls” assessment of recent surveys, fourteen gubernatorial races—including contests in battleground states such as Florida, Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—are ”toss ups.” (That compares to eight “toss ups” in Senate contests.)

In each of those battleground states, Republican governors are fighting to survive politically. In the overwhelmingly Republican states of Alaska and Kansas, Republicans could actually lose.

Why? Because, while Republicans in Washington have produced gridlock over the past four years, Republicans in statehouses have advanced an agenda. Republican governors moved after the 2010 election to implement austerity policies that, while different from state to state, have included assaults on labor unions and funding for public education and public services. Those have not proved to be economically sound, or it turns out politically popular.

How voters express their distaste for austerity in the states could send the clearest signal of the 2014 election cycle.

If, that is, the analysts can be torn away from the jockeying for position in Washington.

Like it or not, the first measure that political insiders and analysts will make of the 2014 results will be a federal one. That’s the nature of contemporary American politics, which have become increasingly Washington obsessed. It is easy to assess the numbers in the Senate and to make grand pronouncements about what that means for President Obama and for the contestants to replace him in 2016. But this is not the only measure. And it may not even be the truest measure.

The results from gubernatorial races will tell us a great deal about where the country is really at after the most expensive midterm election campaign in American history.

If a significant number of these Republican governors lose, the results from their races will be as instructive as the results from the competition for control of the Senate. We’ll learn something if governors who undermined public education, like Sam Brownback in Kansas and Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, lose. We’ll learn at least as much if anti-labor governors like Maine’s Paul LePage, Michigan’s Rick Snyder or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker lose. And, yes, it will be telling, indeed, if Republican Rick Scott loses to Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in the ultimate battleground of Florida.

It will be just instructive if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity, such as California’s Jerry Brown and Minnesota’s Mark Dayton, are re-elected. And if Democratic Governor Pat Quinn is re-elected in Illinois, that will be a win for labor unions—as would be a win for an advisory referendum on raising the minimum wage in that state.

The same would go for wins for proposals to increase wages in the Republican-leaning states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. And if Massachusetts endorses a paid sick leave proposal, that will be a big deal.

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Control of the Senate matters. And there will be plenty of talk about what it means if—as has so frequently happened in the past—the party of a president in the sixth year of his tenure loses seats in the chamber.

But the Senate competition is not all that matters. The signals from those contests for control of the statehouses—and the even more direct signals from referendums on minimum wage and paid sick leave referendums—will matter, as well.

If Republican governors who have embraced austerity are re-elected, that could confirm that another Republican wave has swept America. But if some of those Republican governors who have embraced austerity lose, and if Democratic governors who have rejected austerity win, then there will be more—much more—to say about the 2014 election.

Read Next: John Nichols on how Barack Obama is going for the governorships

The Most Cynical Political Ploy of 2014

"Vote Robert Burke, Get Blazed."

The American Freedom Fund tells young Wisconsinites to “Vote Robert Burke, Get Blazed.” (Screen capture from SupportRobertBurke.com)

The American Future Fund is an enthusiastically conservative organization that each election season fills the airwaves with ads hailing right-wing causes and socially conservative Republican candidates, while ripping Democratic officials and contenders.

But, this fall, the dark-money group is also jumping into battleground states with social-media campaigns hailing third-party candidates, legalization of marijuana and “our progressive values.”

Confused? Don’t be. In close races, those third-party candidates might just pull a few votes away from Democratic contenders, who are specifically attacked in the ads. Yes, that’s playing the margins. But when money is no object, every strategy gets tried.

Welcome to the brave new world of hyper-cynical, win-at-any-cost, big-money politics.

This is how it works.

The American Future Fund explains that it “operates as a 501(c)(4) and was formed to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint to have a mechanism to communicate and advocate on the issues that most interest and concern them.”

Practically, what that means is that, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org project, “AFF spent just under $24.5 million on independent expenditures during the 2012 election cycle—nearly all of it (about $20.8 million) in support of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and against President Obama.” According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the group “received more than 92 percent of its 2012 revenues from two organizations connected to Charles and David Koch.” This year, one of the primary Koch-backed groups says it is moving money elsewhere; but the American Future Fund remains flush with cash.

As a footnote, the Center for Responsive Politics reminds us, “As a nonprofit organization organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Service code, American Future Fund does not have to disclose its donors.”

Nor does it have to abide by the standards that most Americans associate with politics. It can pretty much write its own rules. And so it has.

This fall, the American Future Fund and another group, American Future Fund Political Action (a “separate” organization that describes itself as “a federal political committee which primarily helps members elect candidates who reflect our values through a variety of activities aimed at influencing the outcome of the next election”) are busy, busy, busy—spending millions, millions, millions. American Future Fund Political Action’s involved in House and Senate races all over the country. The group’s attacks on Democrat Bruce Braley are among the roughest being aired in the very rough Iowa US Senate contest, and it’s just up with television ads condemning Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.

But the American Future Fund is not always so negative.

The American Future Fund has over the years had very nice things to say about socially and economically conservative Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—going so far as to purchase newspaper ads hailing the controversial anti-labor governor for “promoting innovation.”

And, of course, this fall the group is producing lots of fun-and-freewheeling social-media ads—with cool music, cool colors and hip references to Snoop Dogg and Bob Marley. The ads are directed at supporters of full legalization of marijuana in general. In particular, they seek to acquaint young voters with third-party candidates who want to help Americans “get high” and “get blazed.”

How’s that?

Though the American Future Fund does not list marijuana legalization, expansion of access to medical marijuana or drug-law reform as a part of its mission as “a voice for conservative principles that sustains free market ideals focused on bolstering America’s global competitiveness,” the group has produced and paid for expensive social media campaigns drawing attention to Libertarian candidates who do support legalization of marijuana.

In the tight North Carolina US Senate race between Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, the American Future Fund is spending heavily to circulate ads that explicitly say, “Don’t even think about voting for Kay Hagan. She doesn’t share our values. You want legalization of marijuana, she’s against it. You want to stop sending our troops overseas, she voted for it. Vote Sean Haugh: He shares our progressive values: pro-legalization, pro-environment, more weed, less war.”

Haugh, a pizza deliveryman who so far has spent under $10,000 on his run, is the sudden beneficiary of $225,000 in spending to talk up his candidacy—and to tear into Kay Hagan. The Libertarian tells reporters on Twitter that he feels like “a character in a Camus novel” and frets about the “dark money” influence on the race.

The American Freedom Fund won’t identify the source of the money that is paying for the ads. As noted above, the group benefited in 2012 from substantial funding from another group that is backed by billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch, Freedom Partners. A Freedom Partners spokesman told reporters that the organization is not currently funding the American Future Fund. Fair enough. It’s no secret that Koch brothers money flows in many directions at election time and, of course, the Koch brothers are not the only right-wing donors who this year have been spending heavily to help Republicans retake control of the Senate.

What is beyond dispute, as Reason notes, is the point of the advertising campaign. This, the libertarian publication explains, is “clearly an attempt to pull a certain class of possible Democratic voters away from incumbent Kay Hagan, and thus likely help the chances of Republican Thom Tillis.”

Nor is there much dispute with regard to the American Future Fund intervention in the close Wisconsin gubernatorial race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke.

The American Freedom Fund has been enthusiastic in its championing of Walker in the past. But, suddenly, it is spending money on ads that attack Mary Burke and talk up the Libertarian candidate Robert Burke. “It’s time to clear the air about who will legalize marijuana in Wisconsin. It’s not Mary Burke,” declares one ad. “It’s Robert Burke. As governor of Wisconsin, Robert Burke will legalize it. Vote Burke. Get Blazed.”

Robert Burke, a serious and sincere Libertarian, is not playing along.

“I do endorse fully full legalization in Wisconsin, but I don’t endorse quite the way that these ads are being positioned,” says the Libertarian candidate. “They are being done primarily to draw votes away from Mary Burke.”

Burke refers to the American Future Fund “Red Team” as “morons.”

But, even if the ads are absurdly over the top and disrespectful of the broad and deep concerns of young voters, there is a method to the group’s madness.

Moving even a small number of young voters away from Mary Burke and toward Robert Burke could be definitional in a close finish. Walker has throughout his tenure polled poorly among voters who are under the age of 30. There are a lot of reasons for this. But it is a fact that the governor is an extreme social conservative who talks about marijuana as a “gateway” drug and has made support for drug testing of food stamp recipients a major theme of his 2014 reelection campaign.

On the other hand, his Democratic challenger, Burke, supports legalization of medicinal marijuana and has a track record of social moderation that is more in sync with young voters. She’s also talking about ways to make college more affordable, to ease the burden of student-loan debt and to promote job growth for young people.

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So young voters, even if their turnout rates are lower than those of older voters, could decide a very close race for Burke. Indeed, says Mary Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki, “They know that with the last two polls of the election showing a dead heat, they are pulling out all the dirty tricks to try and save Walker from defeat.”

To be fair, that’s just one explanation.

The other is that a group with a long history of promoting conservative agendas and talking up right-wing, socially conservative Republicans has suddenly developed an interest in preserving “our progressive values,” protecting the environment, legalizing marijuana and engaging politically with voters who might be inclined to “get blazed.”


Read Next: The Senator Defending Your Privacy Is Fighting for His Political Life

The Senator Defending Your Privacy Is Fighting for His Political Life

Colorado Senator Mark Udall

Colorado Senator Mark Udall  (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

In June of 2014, Senators Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Rand Paul offered a rare show of election-year unanimity when they penned a joint statement arguing that “it is more important than ever to let Congress and the administration know that Americans will reject half-measures that could still allow the government to collect millions of Americans’ records without any individual suspicion or evidence of wrongdoing.”

Udall and Wyden, both Democrats, and Paul, a presumed contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, declared, “It is time to end the dragnet—and to affirm that we can keep our nation secure without trampling on and abandoning Americans’ constitutional rights.”

Essential to that initiative, the senators suggested, is “a groundswell of public support for reform.”

Just five months later, the strength of that groundswell will be tested in Colorado. Udall, the senior senator from that state, is in the fight of his political life with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner. It’s a brutal, high-stakes battle, and polls suggest Gardner has a slight advantage.

If Udall loses, “it would be a significant loss for the movement” to hold the NSA to account and to renew the privacy rights of Americans, says Laura Murphy, who heads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“What Udall has is the institutional memory, and the relationships in the civil liberties community, in the Democratic Party and in the tech industry so that we don’t have to start over again with someone new,” Murphy told The Hill, which has highlighted concerns about what losing Udall would mean to the fight to restrain the NSA.

Constitution Project senior counsel Scott Roehm summed those concerns up when he said, “Were Senator Udall to lose, I think he would be sorely missed. He was one of the earliest voices for meaningful surveillance reform even before the Snowden leaks.”

Why so much concern about one senator?

It has a lot to do with the courage and consistency of Udall’s objections to NSA abuses. The Colorado senator has been a genuine watchdog: calling for Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan to resign after it was revealed that CIA operatives had been spying on the communications of Senate staffers, challenging his colleagues to establish effective oversight of intelligence agencies, demanding meaningful checks and balances and criticizing President Obama for failing to end the excesses of the Bush-Cheney era.

“Mass collection of our phone and Internet records started under a Republican president, continued under a Democratic one. I won’t tolerate it,” Udall tells voters. “As Coloradans, our rights include the freedom to be left alone.”

This willingness to defend privacy rights against abuses—no matter who is in power—distinguishes Udall and only a handful of others in the Senate. That’s why a writer for Reason magazine, the country’s essential libertarian publication, observed last week that a Udall loss “could be grim news for civil libertarians hoping to rein in the NSA.”

Grim news, indeed. So grim that it raises the question: Shouldn’t the preservation of Fourth Amendment protections be a high enough priority that responsible Republicans might want to put partisanship aside and defend a senator who has emerged as an essential advocate for the Bill of Rights? Shouldn’t Rand Paul be speaking up for Udall—if not with an explicit cross-party endorsement then at least with an acknowledgement of the principled positions taken by the senator from Colorado? Shouldn’t civil libertarians from across the poitical and ideological spectrums, Democrats and Republicans, Greens and Libertarians, recognize that the Colorado race is not just another contest in the jockeying for control of the Senate?

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The idea of putting aside petty partisanship in order to speak up for a principled senator is not some radical new notion. In the 1960s, Oregon Democratic Senator Wayne Morse said he intended to vote for Oregon Republican US Senate candidate Mark Hatfield because they shared strong opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the 1990s, Arizona Senator John McCain, a conservative Republican, made no secret of his regard for progressive Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, because of their shared commitment to campaign finance reform.

The Fourth Amendment has too few defenders. Feingold, the sole senator to oppose the Patriot Act in 2001, was defeated in the Republican “wave” election of 2010. Now, the prospect of another Republican “wave” threatens Udall. Those who recognize that privacy rights must be preserved must recognize that the threat is not just to Udall but to the cause of the Constitution.


Read Next: Edward Snowden: A Nation interview

Barack Obama’s Smart Political Play: Go for the Governorships

Barack Obama

(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Barack Obama has had a rough fall. Six years into a hard presidency, he’s wrestling with global instability, a pandemic, an uneven recovery and gridlocked governance. His national approval ratings are down, and his Republican critics are absolutely determined to paint the president as a “toxic” element in the midterm mix. But Obama does not look toxic on the trail through the states where he has begun a final round of 2014 campaigning that is focused, energetic and potentially significant not just for Democrats in close and critical gubernatorial races but for a party that has failed at too many turns this fall to provide a coherent and consistent message.

Obama is actually trying to do something interesting on the trail. He is making a case that is antithetical to the crude, fear-based politics of 2014 by arguing not just for voting but for believing that voting matters. This is not abstraction. Midterm elections have significantly lower turnout rates than presidential elections, which tends to favor Republicans. Additionally, plenty of people who voted for the president and for other Democrats in 2008 and 2012 are now put off by the process, legitimately frustrated not just with obstructionist Republicans but with compromising and politically cautious Democrats.

Obama on the trail is acknowledging the frustration, recognizing widespread cynicism about whether voting matters and then pushing people to believe again—if not entirely in the prospect of changing Washington then at least in the prospect of changing their states.

“You just assume that there’s not much you can do with Springfield and Washington,” Obama argued when he campaigned earlier this month with Governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. “And each and every day you’re fed a message that what you think doesn’t really matter, that your experience doesn’t matter, that nothing you can do is going to make any difference, and both parties are in the tank… And you start being skeptical of every politician. And you start believing that it’s not worth voting. Well I’m here to tell you that that kind of cynicism is a choice you’ve made.”

That, argues Obama, is the wrong choice. “You have power,” he has told voters in Chicago and Milwaukee and will tell voters in Portland and Providence and Detroit and Bridgeport—and perhaps even a few more places before November 4.

There is in Obama’s focus on gubernatorial races an unspoken acknowledgement that 2014 election results are not at all likely to produce a Congress that is any more friendly to him or to his policies. But those results are likely to include big wins for popular Democratic governors such as Jerry Brown in California and Mark Dayton in Minnesota, as well as defeats for Republican governors in as many as a half dozens states.

Obama knows that governors have a role to play in critical decisions regarding the success or failure of his policies, and his party. That’s particularly true when it comes to acceptance of federal Medicaid funding for the expansion of healthcare initiatives, which in turn has an influence on the success of the Affordable Care Act. But it also true with regard to a host of federal transportation, communications and education initiatives.

So the president is betting on the gubernatorial races to provide some important wins on November 4. And gubernatorial candidates in some of the closest contests in the country are betting on him.

That makes political sense. Many of the governors elected in the Republican “wave” election of 2010 are vulnerable this year. Many of them are on the ballot in states that Obama won easily in 2012 and where he tends to retain a good measure of personal popularity: Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Maine, Rhode Island, Michigan and Connecticut.

A lot of Obama’s 2008 voters failed to show up in 2010. Now, he is trying to get his 2012 voters to show up in 2014. In the states where he is campaigning, he has good reason to believe that he can still make the connection with folks like 24-year-old Maryland voter Heather Conyers, who attended a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown and told The Washington Post, “Since the president is behind him, I’ll be behind him.

The United States does not produce universal approval or disapproval ratings for its presidents. And that reality has always shaped strategies for midterm elections. There were states where Republicans wanted Ronald Reagan to campaign with them in the 1982 and 1986 midterm elections, and there were states where Republicans (especially in those days when the party still had a number of moderate and even liberal senators and governors) preferred that the president stay away. There were states where Bill Clinton was welcome as a campaigner, and there were states where local Democrats ran away from their president; notably, in 1998, it turned out that an impeachment-threatened Clinton actually had a lot more appeal than some of his partisan allies imagined.

The key in any election cycle is to achieve the right calculus. And some Democrats this year are making the calculation that Obama can and should play a significant role in their closing appeals for votes and for volunteers to get votes by making last-minute calls, knocking on doors and driving people to the polls. This is practical and potentially important, politics.

Despite the right-wing spin and silly punditry of the moment, there are Democrats in tight races who are ready and willing to appear with the president. And the president is giving them a lot more than a cursory tarmac tap. He is trying to move Democrats from the broad category of “registered voter” category to the narrower category of “likely voters.”

That will decide the elections in a lot of states, such as Wisconsin. Consider this: In the final Marquette Law School poll before Tuesday’s gubernatorial election, what has long been seen as a close contest between Governor Scott Walker and Democrat Mary Burke remained so among registered voters with Walker at 46 percent and Burke at 45 percent. However, among likely voters, it was Walker 50 to Burke 43. As the election approached, the percentage of Republicans who said they were “certain to vote” moved from a previous 82 percent to 93 percent. The percentage of Democrats who said they were “certain to vote” moved only from 80 percent to 82 percent.

Democrats need more registered voters to become likely voters. Obama knows this.

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In Milwaukee Tuesday night, Obama rallied supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Burke. The crowd of 3,500 greeted the president with great enthusiasm, broke into applause regularly and rocked the room with chants of “Obama.” No president, no political figure, objects to that sort of attention. But Obama steered the discussion toward Burke—highlighting her background and taking jabs at Walker that were rooted in the specific issues of the race and the evolving debate.

“Mary Burke doesn’t believe that the minimum wage ’serves no purpose,’ as one Republican said,” declared Obama, in reference to a remark Walker made earlier this month when asked about his administration’s controversial claim that $7.25-an-hour is a living wage.

“She wants to give Wisconsin a raise,” Obama said of Burke, who supports raising the minimum wage in Wisconsin to $10.10 an hour.

The president linked specific complaints about a conservative governor’s opposition to assuring that people who work forty hours a week will not live in poverty to a broader critique of Walker, who has fallen far short of keeping his promise to create 250,000 new jobs. “Wisconsin lags the rest of the country when it comes to job growth,” explained Obama. “So the country as a whole is doing better; Wisconsin is not doing so good. Over the next week, you have the chance to change that. You have a chance to choose a governor who doesn’t put political ideology first, who’s not thinking partisan first.”

Of course, there is a purpose to all this: getting potential Democratic voters excited about casting ballots for a Democratic candidate in a close race. But Obama recognizes that simply telling folks to grab a friend and head for the polls is insufficient, especially in a year where overall enthusiasm is low and turnout rates could dip below not just what was seen in 2012 but potentially below that of past midterm elections.

As the president travels this week, he isn’t just campaigning for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. He is campaigning against cynicism—and the apathy that extends from it.

“Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice,” he says. “Hope is what gives young soldiers the courage to storm a beach. Hope is what gives young people the strength to march for women’s rights and civil rights and voting rights and gay rights and immigrant’s rights. Hope is the belief that there are better days …. That we can build up a middle class and can give back something to our communities and hand down something better for our kids. Hope is what built America, not cynicism.… Go out there and vote.”

Read Next: 7 GOP governors who may lose re-election

Did Sheldon Adelson Just Up the Ante on Scott Walker’s Behalf?

Sheldon Adelson

Sheldon Adelson (Reuters/Vivek Prakash)

Scott Walker is, of course, running for president. The anti-labor governor of Wisconsin confirmed his candidacy in the clearest way possible last March. Despite the fact that he was getting heat at home for traveling too far and too wide from Wisconsin, he jetted to Las Vegas to participate—with other 2016 Republican presidential prospects—in what was dubbed the “Sheldon Adelson primary.”

Polls have made it clear that Wisconsinites do not want the anti-labor governor to run for president and that they do not think he can bid for the GOP nod and serve effectively as governor. So the Vegas run was risky.

But Walker appears to have hit the jackpot.

On October 23, Adelson inked a check for $650,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin. And, on October 23, the Republican Party of Wisconsin made a $450,000 “in-kind” contribution to Scott Walker’s re-election campaign.

Wisconsin, which bars individuals from donating more than $10,000 to a particular candidate in a particular election cycle, used to place strict limits on donations to political parties and transfers of money from parties to candidates. But, this year, Supreme Court and federal court rulings have deconstructed a lot of election law. And, in September, US District Judge Rudolph Randa issued a preliminary injunction that prevents Wisconsin election officials from enforcing limits on individual donations to political parties. That ruling, noted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “creates an easy way for donors to sidestep the limits they normally face when giving to candidates.”

Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign was blunter, saying at the time of the ruling, “What’s being done here is empowering a tiny fraction of one percent of the population to have vastly more influence over elections and our government than they used to have.”

The campaign-finance watchdog explained that with the ruling the influence of super-wealthy super donors had “been magnified, and I think that comes at the expense of everyone else.”

Adelson is, indeed, super-wealthy. Estimates of his casino-fueled fortune run in the range of $40 billion—and rising.

Adelson is, indeed, a super donor. He gave in the range of $150 million to Republican candidates and causes in 2012, according to ProPublica. That, Politico noted, was more than anyone else has given in the history of American presidential politics.

He has also been a generous supporter of Scott Walker, using a special recall-election loophole to donate $250,000 to help the governor hold on to his post in a 2012 recall election. Now, he has found another way to influence Wisconsin politics in an election where Walker’s political future is at stake.

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Under what remains of Wisconsin campaign finance law, Adelson cannot tell the Republican Party of Wisconsin what to do with his money. He can’t, for instance, designate Walker as the direct beneficiary of his largesse. The party can, however, spend money to help its priority candidates—and no one would question that re-electing Walker is the Republican Party of Wisconsin’s top priority.

That’s also a priority for Adelson, who gave a maximum direct donation of $10,000 to the Walker campaign earlier this year. In all, Walker’s campaign has raised roughly $25 million since early 2013. That’s a good deal more than his Democratic challenger, Mary Burke, who has raised roughly $15 million—including $5 million from her own fortune—according to the latest reports. And that’s not counting all the “independent” expenditures that have filled Wisconsin television screens with negative ads.

But, with polls showing him in a dead-heat race with Burke, Walker is griping about not having enough money this year. After all, if he loses this year in Wisconsin, he will have a hard time competing in the real “Sheldon Adelson primary” with all the Republican presidential prospects who will be looking for billionaire backing in 2016.

Read Next: How the Koch Brothers Are Molding the Next Scott Walkers

How a Divided Senate Could Threaten Social Security

Maine's Angus King

Independent Senator Angus King endorsing Susan Collins in her re-election bid. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

American politics is more diverse, more nuanced and more interesting than most media and political elites choose to note. This country elects Libertarians and Greens and Socialists and independents, along with Democrats and Republicans. And 2014 could produce results that put independents in a pivotal position in the US Senate.

But not all independents are alike. And this reality could have critical consequences for debates over the future of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a whole lot more, consequences that ought to understood by everyone who is playing the Senate-control numbers game. To be sure, there are Republicans in the Senate—and running for it—who have indicated a willingness to mess with vital programs. But don’t assume that a Senate where independents hold the balance of power would necessarily preserve those programs. It could be more prone to the mangling proposals of the Simpson-Bowles commission.

There is good reason to be concerned that some independents, led by Maine Senator Angus King, could use their newfound authority in a closely divided Senate to promote the sort of “grand bargain” that has long threatened Social Security as we know it.

With the 2014 Senate competition hurdling toward November 4—when control of the chamber may or may not be decided, depending on potential runoffs in Georgia and Louisiana—the focus on independent candidacies has spiked. If Democrats and Republicans finish with even numbers of senators, even if a party has a one-seat advantage, a couple of ambitious independents could become definitional players.

As of now, one independent contender is polling well enough to be considered a serious prospect for election to the Senate, while another looks to be competitive in a wildly unsettled race. Kansas independent Greg Orman has been running even with Republican Senator Pat Roberts in a contest where the Democrat dropped out. And Republican South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler, who served as a Republican but backed President Obama twice, has retained credible numbers in a multi-candidate field for his old seat.

In Kansas, Orman has received a great deal of support from Democrats since their party’s candidate dropped out, and he is certainly more progressive than Roberts. Pressler, on the other hand, is trying to find his way around conservative Republican Mike Rounds and populist Democrat Rick Weiland.

If either Orman or Pressler were to win, they would join two New England independents, King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in the 100-seat Senate.

This possibility has fueled fanciful talk about the prospect of developing a so-called “independent caucus,” which might try to leverage change in a tightly divided Senate. Similar legislative coalitions have developed in other countries, notably Ireland (where rural independents and urban anti-austerity radicals have gained increasing strength), and the prospect is intriguing. But it is not without peril.

King is a mixed-bag centrist who previously served as the independent governor of Maine. He caucuses with the Democrats currently, but says he might caucus with a Republican majority if he thought that was best for Maine. Notably, King has endorsed Maine’s Republican senator, Susan Collins, as well as Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, for re-election this year.

When asked which party he’d like to work with as the new Senate organizes, King is coy. “I’ll make that decision at the time based upon what I think is in the best interest of Maine,” is all he says.

King has counseled Orman and Pressler to be equally elusive, according to media reports that portray him as a something of an independent guru. It is not unreasonable to suggest that King and another independent (or two) might move as a block—perhaps into the caucus of one party or another, perhaps as a more genuinely independent swing caucus, perhaps as part of a broader “centrist caucus” including independents, Republicans such as Collins and Alexander and Democrats such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.

King, who is not without ambition, could emerge as a definitional player in the next Senate—which, on some campaign and ethics reform issues (he backs of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and address the overwhelming influence of money in politics) could be good.

Unfortunately, when it comes to budget issues, King has steered too frequently in the direction of the austerity agenda advanced by former Republican Senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Simpson and Bowles both backed King’s 2012 campaign.

When he appeared with King in 2012, Bowles said, “I’m telling you I can use a bridge like this guy who can go between the two parties. It would make such a difference.”

At the same event, King announced that debt reduction needed to be the top priority of Congress and bluntly declared, “It’s going to involve some cuts in spending that people aren’t going to like.”

To justify the pain for working families and seniors, King echoed the most absurd of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s rhetorical excesses, saying, “Do nothing and we’re Greece within 20 years.”

King does not back every aspect of the Simpson-Bowles commission—which proposes painful cuts that fall hardest on working families, the poor and the elderly, rather than a growth agenda, for balancing budgets. But The Portland Press Herald has written that “King has called the commission’s plan a good framework for congressional action.”

King’s Senate agenda praises Social Security and Medicare, but then goes on to say that he supports “enacting sensible, gradual reforms to ensure Social Security’s solvency,” an approach that includes “gradually increasing the retirement age, in order to protect the program for future beneficiaries.”

If a newly empowered King were to become the “bridge” Simpson and Bowles have been looking for, if he were to steer Congress toward a “grand compromise” that began to compromise Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the social safety net, the byproduct of the Maine senator’s increased influence could be far more damaging than the gridlock to which he so objects.

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That’s why it matters that the longest-serving independent in the history of the US Congress, Vermont’s Sanders, shows far less interest in jockeying for position than in using whatever influence he has to protect seniors, help workers and assure that budgets are not balanced by taking from the poor and giving to the rich.

“I intend,” says Sanders,

to caucus with that party that will most likely support a major federal jobs program putting millions of Americans back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure; supports overturning the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision; supports raising the minimum wage to a living wage; supports pay equity for women workers; supports a single-payer national health care program; ends our disastrous trade policies; addresses the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality; and is prepared to aggressively address the international crisis of global warming.

Sanders is realistic. Though he has since his election as Vermont’s sole representative to the US House in 1990 worked with Republicans on crucial issues such as trade policy, Sanders responds to questions about the party with which he might align by saying, “I could be wrong, but my guess is that will not be the Republican Party.”

Sanders gets it. It’s valuable to bust the boundaries of a broken two-party system. It’s meaningful when voters elect Greens, Libertarians, Socialists and independents. But if empowered independents turn an obsession with ending gridlock into an excuse for making unacceptable compromises and advancing bad policy, America is no better off.


Read Next: John Nichols on Chris Christie’s terrible idea to let GOP governors control voting

Chris Christie’s Latest Terrible Idea: Let GOP Governors Control Voting for 2016

Chris Christie

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and the self-appointed surrogate-in-chief for the Grand Old Party’s candidates for the top jobs in states across the country this fall, Chris Christie has plenty of reasons to want embattled governors like Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to be re-elected.

Yes, yes, Christie wants to elect governors who will stop all this talk about raising the minimum wage. Yes, yes, Christie wants to elect governors who will “start offending people”—like school teachers and their unions.

But that’s not all the New Jersey governor wants from his fellow Republican executives. Among the reasons he mentions for electing Republican governors, says Christie, is a desire to put the GOP in charge of the “voting mechanism” of likely 2016 presidential battleground states such as Florida and Wisconsin and Ohio..

In a remarkably candid speech to the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform this week, Christie acknowledged a fact that politicians often avoid: the governor of a state, particularly a governor with allies in the legislature and key statewide posts, can play a big role in deciding how easy or how hard it is for working people, minorities, seniors and students to vote.

The governor, who despite his many scandals still seems to imagine himself as a 2016 Republican presidential prospect, described the gubernatorial—and presidential—stakes to the friendly crowd.

“Would you rather have Rick Scott in Florida overseeing the voting mechanism, or Charlie Crist?” Christie announced, in remarks that referenced Democratic challengers to incumbent Republican governors. “Would you rather have Scott Walker in Wisconsin overseeing the voting mechanism, or would you rather have Mary Burke? Who would you rather have in Ohio, John Kasich or Ed FitzGerald?”

Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio are politically competitive states—contested by both parties in presidential years, often producing close finishes that are ultimately resolved by which side is better at getting its supporters to the polls and getting their votes counted. The Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost all three states in 2012, as they did most other battlegrounds. Two of these states, Florida and Wisconsin, have dead-heat gubernatorial contests this year. Races are close, as well, in battleground states such as Michigan and Colorado. And polls place a Democratic challenger well ahead of the incumbent Republican governor in the frequently competitive state of Pennsylvania.

These 2014 races are consequential for 2016, Christie told the Chamber group.

“The fact is it doesn’t matter if you don’t really care what happens in these states,” he said, “you’re going to care about who is running the state in November of 2016, what kind of political apparatus they’ve set up and what kind of governmental apparatus they’ve set up to ensure a full and fair election in 2016.”

“All of those things are incredibly important,” Christie concluded.

No one can argue with him on that point.

Battles over Republican proposals to alter the “voting mechanism” have rocked states across the country over the past several years. Hundreds of proposals that civil rights, voting rights and good government groups say could make it harder to vote have been advanced since the 2010 “Republican wave” election, and dozens have been implemented. Media reports tend to focus on Voter ID laws, and the legal wrangling over those initiatives extended deep into the 2014 election season—just as it could continue deep into the 2016 election season.

But requirements that citizens obtain and present particular forms of identification in order to cast ballots are only the beginning of the long list of voting mechanisms that governors can and do have influence over.

“Nationally there has been a real significant battle over the right to vote in a lot of states across the country, and in particular many Republican-controlled jurisdictions, particularly ones where there were highly competitive races, have passed new laws that make it harder for eligible citizens to vote,” Wendy R. Weiser, the director of the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, explained to New Jersey’s Bergen County Record. “This is a fairly recent phenomenon; it really stepped up in 2011 after the 2010 election when there was a real shift in partisan control across the country, and it has continued.”

The laws take many forms, but, explained Weiser, “one thing that they appear to all have in common is that they do all fall more harshly on minority voters, low-income voters, seniors and young voters.”

Consider Wisconsin, a state Christie referenced. Since his election in 2010, Republican Governor Walker has advocated for, signed and defended laws—passed by a Republican legislature which reponds to his “jump” command by shouting in unison “how high?”—that include:

* Voter ID provisions so strict that a federal judge determined that they violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution—and that the US Supreme Court has now put on hold.

* A radical gerrymandering of congressional and legislative district lines that has also been challenged in the courts and that in 2012 produced a circumstance where substantially more ballots were cast for Democratic legislative candidates but Republicans remained firmly in control.

* A shift in the primary election date so that primaries were moved from September to the peak vacation month of August—when many Wisconsinites are away from home and college students are generally on break.

* Constraints on early voting that limit the number of hours available for evening and weekend voting, which in recent years have been prime times for working-class voters to cast ballots.

Walker, himself a 2016 presidential prospect, still finds himself in a very tight race this year. That may explain why the governor and his allies fought so hard to implement their voter ID agenda—with the Republican attorney general even saying after the Supreme Court blocked implementation of the law that he was still looking for ways to put restrictions in place this year. (He finally backed off two weeks before election day, but there are still fears about confusion and complexity.)

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Walker’s legislative allies are now openly condemning the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board—which is charged with overseeing elections—and talking about taking steps to force its director out.

Chris Christie has been campaigning hard for Walker, despite the fact that the men are potential rivals for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination, Next week, the New Jersey governor will make his second visit this fall to Wisconsin and the RGA just upped its pro-Walker TV ad buy to $2 million, after polls showed the anti-labor incumbent is struggling. The RGA is all in, as well, for Scott in Florida and for Republicans running in battleground states across the country. That’s smart politics for Christie, as it puts him in the spotlight and allows him to get on the good side of Republicans in key states. And if those Republicans happen to be in charge of the “voting mechanisms” of those states in 2016, Christie reminds us, that could be “incredibly important.”


Read Next: John Nichols on seven GOP governors who may lose their re-election bids

One Thing Hillary Clinton Understands About Politics in 2014

Alison Lundergan Grimes and Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton campaigns for Alison Lundergan Grimes (left). (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Hillary Clinton is never going to be confused for an economic populist. Her record as a key player in Bill Clinton’s administration, as a United States senator, as secretary of state and as a favorite on the corporate speaking circuit in recent years bends a lot more toward Wall Street than Main Street.

But Hillary Clinton understands something important—make that vital—about the politics of 2014.

Clinton recognizes that the issue that matters in 2014 is the economy (number one in the latest Gallup Poll) and that voters want “good jobs” that pay a family-supporting wage (number two in the latest Gallup survey). And Clinton knows that the clearest policy connection between where the economy is today and where it needs to be is made via support for a substantial hike in the minimum wage.

So when the presumed Democratic front-runner in 2016 swept into Kentucky this week to muscle up the US Senate campaign of Clinton-family favorite Alison Lundergan Grimes, Clinton was on message—far more on message, in fact, than most prominent Democrats who have hit the trail this month in an effort to save the Senate, win governorships and generally prevent the 2014 midterms from going the way of the 2010 midterms.

Clinton devoted a substantial portion of her speech in Kentucky—as she has other speeches on a busy schedule of appearances on behalf of Democrats in tight races—to specific and aggressive appeals for voters to cast their ballots with an eye toward increasing the minimum wage.

Mitch McConnell, Grimes’s opponent, has made his opposition to hiking wages for the lowest-paid workers in Kentucky and across the country abundantly clear. When he met with the Koch brothers and their allies at a supposedly secret gathering in California last June, the Kentuckian said that if Republicans take charge of the Senate after the November election, “we’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals…things like raising the minimum wage.”

Grimes is different. She supports federal proposals to raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. And that’s the stance that Clinton highlighted in her Kentucky swing on behalf of Grimes.

Noting, correctly, that the “scales are weighted against working families,” Clinton told a huge crowd in Louisville, “The truth is not that raising the minimum wage destroys jobs. That has not happened. My husband raised the minimum wage when he was president. I voted to raise the minimum wage when I was a senator. Why? Not only to help minimum wage workers but the ripple effect of raising the minimum wage will add hundreds of millions of dollars to this state’s economy and lift thousands of Kentucky families out of poverty.”

Clinton wove the minimum-hike appeal into her speech at various points, reminding the crowd, “Many of those women, single moms, a lot of them are working two, three jobs just to keep their families afloat. Don’t you think they need a little understanding and support? Don’t you think they deserve a senator who will fight to give them the boost they need?”

Clinton also made it clear that McConnell is not that senator.

“If we are going to make sure that the workers across Kentucky finally get an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage of $10.10 an hour and get rid of one who’s voted against it 17 times,” the former senator from New York said, “it takes Kentucky.”

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Of course, raising the minimum wage is smart economic policy.

But it is also smart politics.

Fresh data on the political potency of appeals for a wage-hike comes from the NELP (National Employment Law Project) Action Fund, which commissioned surveys in six battleground states by Public Policy Polling. The polling found that there is “strong support for increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and that Republican candidates could face backlash for their opposition to the raise.”

“A majority of voters in every state supports increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, by margins ranging from 14 to 28 points,” according to an analysis by the pollster. “On average more than 80% of Democrats support the increase, as do at least a plurality of independents and an average of about 30% of Republicans in each state.”

In Kentucky, voters favored a substantial increase in the federal minimum wage by a 56-35 margin.

Seventy-four percent of Kentuckians said they could not live on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Most importantly, from a political standpoint, 39 percent of Kentuckians said that if they knew a Republican candidate was opposed to raising the minimum wage, they would be less likely to vote for that candidate.

The numbers from the Senate battleground states of Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina were strikingly similar, as were the numbers from the gubernatorial battleground states of Illinois and Wisconsin.

The bottom line is this: Hillary Clinton may not be a populist, but she is a savvy politician. And she recognizes a reality: Americans are ready and willing to vote for a dramatically higher minimum wage—and for the candidates who support it.

Read Next: Scott Walker Thinks $7.25 Is a Living Wage—He’s Wrong .”

Scott Walker Thinks $7.25 Is a Living Wage—He’s Wrong

Scott Walker

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Reasonable people may differ on the precise definition of a living wage. But the consensus is that $7.25 an hour does not come close to the standard for assuring that someone who works full time can earn enough to live above the poverty line.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration has formally rejected that consensus view and is now arguing that $7.25 an hour is a living wage.

Walker disdain for the minimum wage is well established. When a Wisconsin reporter asked the governor this week to clarify his stance with regard to setting a base wage, he explained, "I don't think it serves a purpose."

Walker avows that he is not currently angling to repeal Wisconsin's $7.25 an hour wage rate. But raise it? No way. Indeed, it is now the policy of his administration to say that workers earning that wage are taking home a "sufficent" amount of money to get by.

As with so many economic issues, the virulently anti-labor governor—who is seeking re-election this year and preparing for a 2016 Republican presidential run—is wrong on the facts. He is also at odds with the long-held values of Wisconsin, a state that once led the nation is establishing protections for low-wage workers.

Let’s begin with the facts:

In his groundbreaking book, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, the historian Lawrence Glickman explains a living wage as “a wage level that offers workers the ability to support families, to maintain self-respect, and to have both the means and the leisure to participate in the civic life of the nation.”

According to the “Harvard Living Wage Fact Sheet,” “Although living wage standards do, by definition, vary by region, they are all considerably higher than the federal minimum wage.” The fact sheet continues, “This is because the minimum wage does not begin to meet the needs of working people or families anywhere in the country: in fact, it puts a parent with one child below the federal poverty line. A living wage aims to correct this by establishing, at a local level, a more reasonable minimum wage.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Living Wage Calculator” allows Americans to calculate what that might mean in cities, villages and towns across the United States. In Milwaukee, for instance, the living wage for a single working adult is $9.48 an hour, while the family-friendly living wage—for a single working parent with a child—is $20.85 an hour. In Racine, it’s $8.75 an hour for a working adult and $19.97 an hour for a working parent with a child. In Madison, it’s 9.54 an hour for a working adult and $21.17 an hour for a working parent with a child.

The numbers may vary a bit, but the pattern is clear. And officials and voters in states across the country have begun to respond by hiking minimum-wage rates. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will vote this fall on proposals for significant wage increases, and Illinois will vote on an advisory measure on the issue. Additionally, Democratic and Republican candidates in this year’s mid-term elections are expressing support for legislative remedies.

But don’t count Scott Walker in their number.

As Wisconsin’s governor, Walker is uniquely positioned among all governors in the nation to address the concerns of low-wage workers. Unlike most other states, where governors have little or no authority to help low-wage workers, Wisconsin governors can act.

A century ago, when Wisconsin served as the nation’s “laboratory of democracy,” the state’s progressive leaders enacted legislation to address the issue. Wisconsin Statute Sec. 104.02 declares, “Every wage paid or agreed to be paid by any employer to any employee (except in narrowly-defined circumstances for student learners and workers in sheltered workshops) shall be not less than a living wage.”

According to the law, when a governor’s administration receives “a verified complaint of any person setting forth that the wages paid to any employee in any occupation are not sufficient to enable the employee to maintain himself or herself under conditions consistent with his or her welfare,” the complaint must be investigated within twenty days and a determination must be made on “whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the wage paid to any employee is not a living wage.”

If there is a finding “that there is reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to any employee are not a living wage,” the governor can move to address the issue. A wage council selected to fairly represent employers, employees and the public can be charged with setting a living wage for all workers in the class of employees who are not being adequately compensated.

This is the law. It is also the standard that Wisconsin has lived by since 1913, a standard that recognizes fair compensation for workers is good for the state’s economy and for the state’s democracy. When workers earn a living wage, they are freer to participate more easily and more fully in society.

Support for a living wage was always understood by Wisconsin leaders as being about more than money. It was essential to creating a civil, fair and functional society. That’s why Republicans initiated the state’s living-wage law a century ago, and why Republican and Democratic governors have embraced the law practically and idealistically.

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Wisconsin’s living-wage law is not a historical relic. As state Representative Chris Taylor’s office notes, “Recent Democratic and Republican Governors, including Governor Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson, used their authority under Wisconsin law to increase wages.” And groups such as the Raise Wisconsin coalition of community and labor groups and Wisconsin Jobs Now! have focused on the option as a vehicle to quickly and effectively begin responding to income inequality.

Yet now Scott Walker and his appointees are refusing to take the law seriously.

When a legitimate complaint was presented to Walker’s administration last month, it was quickly rejected—with scant review and an absurd assertion that Wisconsin’s living-wage standard is being met.

Worse yet, when the governor was asked about the issue in the first gubernatorial debate last Friday, he avoided responding to the issue. Pressed a second time by the panelist who had asked the initial question, Walker again refused to address the living-wage law or issues relating to it. He did not even acknowledge what his own administration had just done.

There are many matters on which Scott Walker has broken faith with Wisconsin. But few are so chilling, so deeply unsettling, as his disregard for the condition of the Wisconsinites who work full-time but live in poverty.

This is about much more than politics; Republicans and Democrats have historically respected Wisconsin’s living-wage standard, and it has served the state and its citizens well. Walker’s disregard for it marks him as a political careerist who is more interested in pleasing billionaire campaign donors from Kansas and New York than keeping his oath to “faithfully and impartially discharge the duties” of his position.

Read Next: John Nichols on why Scott Walker will never be president

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