With two weeks until the election, Republican candidate Karen Handel has given her Democratic opponent a gift-wrapped present in the special election for an open Georgia House seat.
At a debate on Tuesday, Handel said that she did not support a “livable wage” because she’s a conservative, not a liberal. Immediately, Democrat Jon Ossoff pounced on the admission, releasing an ad highlighting his support for the living wage.
“This is an example of the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative: I do not support a livable wage,” Handel said, according to Talking Points Memo. “What I support is making sure that we have an economy that is robust with low taxes and less regulation.”
Hiking the minimum wage is a very popular idea, with more than half of voters saying they support it in some polls. Republican orthodoxy is that minimum wage hikes will result in job losses. Though the evidence is mixed from economists, there’s no doubt it remains a popular issue, particularly with an energized Democratic base.
A gaffe like this in the final weeks of the race is a potentially fatal mistake. Polling suggests Handel doesn’t have much room to lose. Ossoff is up by about 2 points in a recent poll — on pace to win a deeply conservative House district that has recently gone to Republicans by more than 20 points.
Conservative policy orthodoxy is dragging down GOP candidates
Handel’s remarks, which were widely reported in the media, may prove another example of how conservative policy orthodoxy — rather than Donald Trump’s many scandals — are dragging down Republican candidates in congressional and state elections.
Some pundits have argued that Trump’s low approval ratings and Russia-related scandals are helping to sink Republican candidates nationally. But opposition to a living wage is well-entrenched as Republican Party dogma, going back decades. By contrast, though he’s taken contradictory positions, Trump began his campaign by running on increasing the minimum wage to $10 an hour. It’s a position many of his voters supported. Republicans’ unpopular opposition on minimum wage hikes isn’t something they can pin on Trump.
A similar dynamic has emerged in multiple House races over health care. The health care issue — more than Trump’s firing of Comey — has dominated Democratic messaging in the special elections, which have been held in districts where Trump remains relatively popular.
Trump ran promising a health care plan that would guarantee universal coverage and lower premiums. Then Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican Congress helped box him into a wildly unpopular bill that did the exact opposite. And as Handel may discover over her “livable wage” remark, Republican economic policy positions are often extraordinarily unpopular — about 60 percent of voters support substantial minimum wage hikes.
“The Republicans have often been faced with a dilemma that their approach in domestic policy is to support rollbacks of social programs,” said Dave Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, in an interview last month. “But there is a clear pattern that there’s a political risk in pursuing retrenchment.”