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  • Democrats 35,164,844 (45.49%) | Republicans 39,910,502 (51.63%) | Other 2,228,361 (2.88%)
National Politics|By Amy Walter, February 20, 2014

Lately, Republicans have been been pretty happy with government. Well, with one agency at least. Over the last two weeks the number crunchers at the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office have released reports that include some bad news for two significant legislative priorities of President Obama and Democrats--the Affordable Care Act and the minimum wage.

But, not all bad news is good for the GOP. In fact, when it comes to the debate over the minimum wage, there is more risk than reward for Republicans.

This week, a CBO analysis found that an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25/hr to $10.10/hr would lift 900,000 workers out of poverty and increase wages for about 16.5 million. However, it would also "reduce total employment by about 500,000 workers." This comes on the heels of a CBO report that determined that one impact of Obamacare was a reduction in the number of hours worked by Americans, "almost entirely because workers will choose to supply less labor--given the new taxes and other incentives they will face and the financial benefits some will receive." The total number of "reduced hours" translates into roughly 2 million fewer people working in 2017, and 2.5 million fewer people working by 2024.

Republican short-hand for these reports: Obama's policies kill jobs.

But, one is going to be an easier sell for Republicans than the other.

Democrats were quick to push back on claims by the GOP that Obamacare is a "job killer." And, to be sure, the CBO report says no such thing. However, there are plenty of ways for Republicans to turn the "2 million fewer jobs" line into attack ads. And, given the already pessimistic views of the American public about the law, it's likely to be effective. When less than 30 percent of Americans think that the health care law will "be good for the country" it's not a stretch for them to believe that implementation of the new health care law is going to have a negative impact on the economy and/or jobs. Voters have been fed a steady diet of bad news about the health care law and are already primed to believe the worst.

Even as voters express dissatisfaction with President Obama's handling of the economy, they still see Democrats as more sympathetic to and more in touch with the economic concerns of average Americans.

On raising the minimum wage, however, voters' views are more positive. Recent national polls show support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hr in the low-70's. When asked if they think a rise in the minimum wage will reduce the number of jobs available, just 41 percent of those in a recent CBS poll thought that it would, while a majority (54 percent) disagreed. Unlike Obamacare, Americans' perceptions about the minimum wage are in line with Democrats. More Americans simply think that a rise in the minimum wage is a good thing for the economy.

In fact, says one prominent labor strategist, this is a fight Democrats should want to have with Republicans.

First, says this strategist, the issue divides Republicans. A poll conducted for the AFL-CIO by Hart Research in early February in five battleground states (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin) found a significant class divide among Republicans on these issues. For example, sixty-five percent of Republicans making less than $50,000/year agreed with the statement that it should be a "priority to make sure employers pay a living wage." Only 35 percent of those making more than $50,000/year agreed. In pushing against a rise in the minimum wage, Republicans risk turning off many of their own voters. Democrats, say this strategist, are united on the issue, regardless of their economic standing.

Another risk for Republicans is that a mishandling of the issue widens their "economic empathy gap" problem. Even as voters express dissatisfaction with President Obama's handling of the economy, they still see Democrats as more sympathetic to and more in touch with the economic concerns of average Americans. Any Republican who argues--or is made to look like he/she agrees with the idea--that paying the working poor more money is bad for the economy, is going to look out of touch to most voters.

Finally, and perhaps most important for Democrats, is that this is an issue that motivates the base (which they desperately need this fall), without alienating the middle. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 51 percent of Americans thought raising the minimum wage should be an "absolute priority" this year, including 76 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of African Americans, 60 percent of Latinos, and 51 percent of independents.

For Democrats, there is no down-side in trying to portray themselves as defenders of the working and middle class. After all, that same strategy worked out well for Obama in 2012. As one prominent Democratic pollster said to me in the wake of 2012 election, "we just had an election that was about economic philosophy--we won, they lost."

However, the question is if that strategy can succeed in a midterm election environment that is much less hospitable to the Democrats. The battle for control of the Senate isn't taking place in Wisconsin or Ohio, but in red states like Louisiana and Alaska. To pick up seats in the House, Democrats need to be successful in GOP leaning suburbs where just turning out their base won't be enough to win. An even bigger threat to the Democrats strategy, of course, is the Obamacare issue. Even voters who might by sympathetic to the Democrats economic message, are cross-pressured by their real or perceived frustrations with the new health care law. If--and at this point it is still a big IF--Democrats are successful in 2014, it's not because Obamacare suddenly got more popular, but because they were able to neutralize it with an effective economic argument.