"It's a no-brainer for any Democrat," said Neil Sroka, a strategist for progressive groups who is communications director at the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America. "Congress is failing. They can take real action right in the states and have a demonstrable impact right here at home. For politics and policy, it's a winning strategy."
Minimum wage is a perennial issue that has taken on a higher profile amid the slowly recovering economy and growing public debate about income inequality. A Quinnipiac University poll this month found 71 percent of Americans in favor of raising the minimum wage including more than half of Republicans polled.
Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, calls it an "organic issue that's bubbling up from the grassroots." But it's also being pressed by politicians and labor unions. Democrats challenging Republican governors have taken up the issue, and there are ballot initiatives in several states.
"We are facing a huge income gap that only continues to widen, where the workers at the top see large wage increases and the workers at the bottom are at a standstill. That needs to change," said Massachusetts Democratic Senate President Therese Murray.
Five states passed minimum wage measures last year, and advocates hope that number will grow as states from New Hampshire to Washington consider proposals. Many would push families above the federal poverty line, which is $15,730 for a family of two. In Iowa, a bill would hike the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. A Rhode Island bill would raise it from $8 to $9. And a year after New York approved a multiyear minimum wage hike, Assembly Democrats introduced another bill for 2014 sponsored by Labor Committee Chairman Carl Heastie of New York City that would accelerate the increase.
Labor unions and other advocates point to workers like Andrew Lloyd, who cleans the cabins, bathrooms and cockpits of airplanes between flights at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City for $8 an hour. With a wife and 1-year-old, he relies on food stamps to help stock the refrigerator and his paychecks barely cover diapers and other needs of his daughter. He said he can't afford a new pair of socks for himself.
"It's not enough. What we're making is not enough to support," Lloyd said. "There's just no way they can justify what is going on is right."
Opponents, many of them Republicans, argue that the higher wages translate into fewer jobs and higher consumer costs. So wage hike bills in Republican-controlled legislatures, like Florida and South Carolina, are not expected to pass. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said the claim that working families need the boost to make ends meet makes him "cringe, because I know that statement is a lie."
"Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs," Scott said. "We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families, and that's what I am focused on."
Already, a Democrat-backed bill to increase Indiana's minimum wage by $1 was blocked by majority Republicans on a party-line vote Tuesday.
Win or lose, the legislation gives Democrats a potential weapon against Republican opponents. Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist with close ties to labor unions, said Republicans who oppose a wage hike will face fierce criticism.
"There's a lot of people in this state that are making the minimum wage that are voting Republican right now," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Tennessee, where they plan to introduce a minimum wage bill this year. "Maybe if they see that they don't have their best interests in their heart, they might change their minds."
There's hope that success will breed more success. Vale, a top adviser at the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, said the thinking behind the push is to get things started at the state level, where lawmakers come into more direct contact with their constituents. Once state legislatures start moving, it will lend momentum to a federal expansion.
In Minnesota, Rep. Ryan Winkler said as the debate spreads to more states, lawmakers might be more comfortable boosting the wage floor in his state.
"It's not peer pressure, but it's safety in numbers," Winkler said. "It makes people feel like this is a mainstream thing to do."
Contributing were Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington; Steve LeBlanc in Boston; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Fla.; Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn.; and Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis.
A look at minimum wage legislation in states
Some minimum wage legislation and initiatives in states around the nation:
Alabama: Proposed constitutional amendment would raise minimum wage by steps to $9.80 on Jan. 1, 2016. Voters would also have to approve the measure.
Alaska: Supporters of an effort to raise the minimum wage turned in signatures with hopes of getting the issue on the August ballot.
Arkansas: Supporters hope to gather enough signatures for a ballot proposal in November that would raise the minimum wage by steps to $8.50 per hour by 2017.
Delaware: A bill would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25, in two 50-cent increments.
Florida: Bills would raise the rate to $10.10.
Georgia: Two bills sponsored by House Democrats would raise the minimum wage.
Hawaii: Lawmakers have filed paperwork on bill to raise the minimum wage.
Idaho: An effort is underway to get a minimum wage hike on next November's ballot. The initiative would hike the lowest legal pay in Idaho to $9.80 an hour by 2017.
Illinois: Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn wants to raise the rate from $8.25 to at least $10.
Indiana: A Democrat-backed bill to increase Indiana's minimum wage by $1 was blocked by majority Republicans on a party-line vote.
Iowa: Bill would hike the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour up to $10.10.
Kentucky: Bill would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over three years.
Louisiana: Louisiana's legislative session begins in March, and a Democratic lawmaker has said he intends to introduce wage legislation.
Maryland: Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is backing an increase of $10.10 an hour by 2016.
Massachusetts: The state Senate approved an increase in the minimum wage from $8 to $11 over three years. The House hasn't taken up the measure. The issue could also land on the ballot this year.
Michigan: Bills introduced in 2013 would raise the minimum wage from $7.40 to $10 an hour over three years. Michigan has two-year legislative sessions.
Minnesota: Democratic backers have been holding hearings around the state and hope to win passage of a wage bill within weeks of the Legislature's session opening in late February.
Missouri: Four bills seek to raise the minimum wage, either to $8.25, $9, $10 or $10.25. Advocacy groups also have filed four versions of a proposed ballot initiative seeking to raise the minimum wage.
Nebraska: A group of lawmakers is pushing for a minimum-wage increase to $9 per hour, phased in over three years.
New Hampshire: Democrats who control the House are pushing a minimum wage increase.
New Mexico: A proposed constitutional amendment introduced in the Senate would automatically increase the state's minimum wage each year to adjust it for inflation. If approved by lawmakers, the measure would be placed on the November ballot.
New York: Bill would accelerate the state's scheduled minimum wage increase to $9 by 2015 and tie it to the inflation rate.
Pennsylvania: At least half a dozen bills would raise the state's $7.25-an-hour minimum wage.
Rhode Island: Bill would raise the minimum wage from $8 to $9 in 2015.
South Carolina: One bill would require employers to pay at least $10 an hour or whatever federal law requires, whichever is greater. Another would require employers to pay $1 more than the federal minimum wage. Additionally, there is a resolution to ask voters whether the state constitution should change to allow for a minimum wage greater than the federal minimum wage.
South Dakota: Ballot measure would raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $8.50 an hour beginning in January 2015.
Tennessee: House Democrats plan to introduce a minimum wage bill this year.
Utah: A Democratic lawmaker is working on a proposal to increase Utah's minimum wage by $1 from $7.25 to $8.25.
Vermont: A bill in the House would raise the minimum wage to $12.50 in 2015, while a bill in the Senate would boost it to $12 per hour in 2016. Both would adjust it for inflation afterward.
Virginia: One bill would raise the wage to $8.50 an hour, another to $8.25.
Washington: A bill would increase what is already the highest state minimum wage in the nation to $12 an hour over the next three years.
West Virginia: House Democratic delegates are pushing a $1 increase to the minimum wage.
Wisconsin: Bills would raise the general minimum wage from $7.25 to $7.60.
Wyoming: A bill would raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour for non-tipped employees.
Source: AP reporting