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2015 Elections: Status quo remains; voters reject minimum wage increases


Tuesday’s election continued a trend we have witnessed over the past few years — Republicans dominated statewide contests while Democrats locked down Mayoral seats in key major metropolitan markets.

One year ago, Republicans won by historic margins at the state level, installing 31 Republican governors and winning control of 67 of the 98 state legislative chambers. On Tuesday, Republicans not only defended those advances, but added to that margin by winning decisively in Kentucky.

At the same time, Democrats swept mayoral races in the largest metros, most notably Charlotte (NC), Columbus (OH), San Francisco (CA), Orlando (FL) and Philadelphia (PA). Democrats also gained the mayor’s office in Indianapolis (IN).

For Democrats looking ahead to 2016, the continued drubbing at the state level will be softened by the fact that a number of the most important mayoral contests occurred in battleground states providing footholds in key districts. As Democrats lose control of statehouses, major metros have become more and more important to the party, serving as incubators for talent and progressive policy initiatives. In many of these jurisdictions the business community will have to continue to play defense.

So what does this all mean: In short, the status quo will remain, and the partisan gridlock in DC will continue to create a dynamic where employer issues creep into state capitols and city halls across the country forcing operators to have to continue to defend their employment practices in city after city.

The gridlock could very well reach a fever pitch heading into the 2016 elections because it’s likely that both sides will emerge from Election Day feeling that they have a mandate from the voters "to lead.” More “Big City” mayors will pursue progressive agenda items like paid leave, huge minimum wage increases and scheduling mandates, and Republicans at the state level will continue on a path to rebuff the Obama agenda.

The tension between blue, progressive cities residing inside red, conservative states will be particularly acute as election season enters full swing. And operators will be caught in the middle as elected officials jockey for the spotlight and attempt to drive their priorities to the top of the political conversation.

Tuesday’s results clearly highlight that the political divide between urban and suburban/rural America is as pronounced as ever. That’s not necessarily news, but traditionally, these two groups of voters haven’t been so neatly organized on the ideological spectrum. In the past, some issues cut across geography or political affiliation. This dynamic will continue to erode constructive policy conversations.

While we always hope that sound public policy will ultimately win the day, both sides of the aisle would be wise to exercise caution on account of political considerations. The White House in 2016 is the ultimate prize, and while Republicans have cause to celebrate, the electorate that showed up yesterday (and in 2014 for that matter) is very different than the voters who will show up on Election Day 2016. For Democrats, voters in the liberal bastions of Portland (ME) and Tacoma (WA) rejected a $15 an hour minimum wage mandate demonstrating that ideology won’t always trump common sense.

Unfortunately, those learnings will probably be lost in the shuffle of primary season. With the 2015 elections now in the books, this week is the official start of the 2016 campaign season. Right on cue, and timed to coincide with the Republican Presidential debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday, operators will again contend with protestors on their collective doorstep as the Fight for $15 campaign executes its largest “National Day of Action” to date.

The business community should look to the campaigns in Tacoma (WA) and Portland (ME) which provide a roadmap on how to win on issues like minimum wage in “progressive cities." For retailers and restaurant operators, the 2016 political winds seem intent on making you a centerpiece in the political dialogue, and everybody has a political mandate from the voters, so buckle up and hang tight.

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full-service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision making. Align Public Strategies specializes in service sector industries.

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