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In an otherwise dismal election, progressive populist victories on state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage reveal a way forward for Democrats who are paying attention.

Going into the 2014 mid-term election, the odds — and deep-pocketed billionaire donors — favored Republicans. Yet, one issue defied trends and conventional wisdom: increasing the minimum wage. After efforts to raise the federal minimum wage stalled, voters went over the heads of their own elected officials, and voted to raise wages themselves.

Minimum wage initiatives were on the ballot in five states — four of them "red states."

  • Alaska Measure 3 would raise the minimum wage to $9.75 per hour by 2016.
  • Arkansas Issue 5 would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 per hour by 2017.
  • Illinois Advisory Question 1 asked voters if they would support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour.
  • Nebraska Initiative 425 would raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour by 2016.
  • South Dakota Measure 18 would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 by 2015.

The measures weren't all ideal. Alaska's Measure 3 tied its minimum wage increase to inflation. South Dakota's Measure 18 tied it to the consumer price index. But both are at least steps in the right direction.

Every state ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage passed with majority support —even in the four "red states."

  • Alaska Measure 3 passed with 68.8% of the vote.
  • Arkansas Issue 5 passed with 65.4% of the vote.
  • Illinois Advisory Question 1 passed with 66.7% of the vote.
  • Nebraska Initiative 425 passed with 59.2% of the vote.
  • South Dakota Measure 18 passed with 55.1% of the vote.

Voters going to the polls on Tuesday were concerned about rising economic inequality, and the majority saw increasing the minimum wage as a way to address it.

Ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage sometimes proved more popular than the candidates who supported them. Ballot initiatives in red states succeeded, while the Democratic candidates who supported them did not. Arkansas' ballot initiative was supposed to be the boost that Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor needed. But Pryor was defeated by Republican Tom Cotton, who said that he would vote for the initiative "as a citizen," but prefers to trying growing the economy through tax cuts and deregulation — rather than paying hardworking Americans a living wage.

Though a majority of likely voters wanted to see the minimum wage increased, most planned to vote for Republicans who are opposed to increasing the minimum wage. The result was an election in which voters cast their ballots to raise the minimum wage in their states, while at the same time electing Republicans — making it less likely that federal minimum wage legislation will pass in Congress.

This duality in the electorate represents an opportunity for Democrats, if they truly embrace economic populism. Justine Sarver, Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, spelled out the opportunity in the Center's 2014 pre-election report:

“Perhaps the most unifying theme we’ve discovered is frustration with government,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “Voters express very little confidence in their elected officials. They see ballot measures as an opportunity for personal empowerment, a chance to have a say in a political process in which they often feel like spectators.”

Ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage brought people to the polls, by giving them an opportunity to vote an an issue in which they had a personal stake: whether people who work hard every day should earn enough to afford food, shelter, and other essentials. But that didn't translate in to votes for Democratic candidates who also supported raising the minimum wage.

Most who voted "yes" on these ballot initiatives also voted for Republicans who are opposed to raising the minimum wage. This suggests a split between Republicans in Congress and conservatives outside of Washington on "kitchen table" economic issues. That means Democrats may have an opportunity to reach those voters with an economic populist message that speaks to their concerns.

There's just one caveat. For it to work, Democrats will not only have to embrace economic populism. They'll have to convince voters that they really mean it.

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