WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney on Friday inserted himself back into a vigorous debate over the direction of the party he led in 2012, urging Republicans to drop their opposition to raising the minimum wage, a topic expected to be a major focus of this November's midterm elections.
While Romney may not have immediately changed minds within his party, his remarks quickly went viral among Democrats and Republicans, indicating they could help ignite a discussion within the GOP about how far Republicans need to go to win over working-class voters.
"I part company with many of the conservatives in my party on the issue of the minimum wage. I think we ought to raise it," Romney said Friday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Because frankly, our party is all about more jobs and better pay. And I think communicating that is important to us."
Last week, only one Republican in the Senate — Bob Corker of Tennessee — voted to advance a bill that would have raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. The bill failed to cross the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster.
Public opinion polls show that a minimum wage hike has broad support. Two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in February. The poll found that 62 percent of independents and 86 percent of Democrats supported such an increase, while 54 percent of Republicans surveyed said they opposed it.
Over the past year, in the wake of his two unsuccessful bids for the presidency, Romney has tried to emerge as an elder statesman in his party, endorsing some establishment candidates, hosting a policy retreat in Park City, and appearing more regularly in the media. Although he declared himself in 2012 to be "severely conservative," much of his recent activity has gone toward trying to moderate the Republican Party — in its positions, its rhetoric, and the candidates it selects.
His reemergence comes as the GOP has struggled internally over its direction for the past several years, leading some analysts to wonder whether it will have increasing trouble attracting support in presidential elections amid a diverse electorate.
"Long term, the Republican Party can't just be the party of Benghazi and Obamacare," said David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron. "People like Mitt Romney and other members of the Republican establishment realize this and understand this. The problem is they have a very active and vocal Republican base made up of Tea Partiers and social conservatives that may not be too keen on the Republican Party shifting in a more moderate direction."
Democrats are making the minimum wage a centerpiece of their 2014 midterm strategy, urging an increase they say would help the working class. Many Republicans have been fighting an increase they say would hurt businesses and would come at a time when the economy is too fragile.
"I thank Governor Romney for urging Republicans to do the right thing," said Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York who had called then-presidential candidate Romney's economic plan an elitist "dirty trick" that would benefit the wealthy.
Along with Romney, a few prominent Republicans — including former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former US senator Rick Santorum — have urged their party to raise the minimum wage. But most of the leading contenders in the 2016 GOP presidential field have opposed a minimum wage increase.
"Raising the minimum wage causes more unemployment," Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, told CNN in January.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has also spoken against raising the minimum wage. So has Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's vice presidential running mate.
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey last month said he could support a minimum wage increase as long as it is done in a "common-sense way and phased-in over a period of time."
Christie last year vetoed a bill that would have raised New Jersey's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50, saying it was too aggressive an increase. He proposed raising the wage $1 over three years instead.
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida, has not said anything recently about his views on the minimum wage increase, and several aides and advisers did not return messages.
Romney, who reiterated Friday he has no plans to seek the presidency again, said he hoped supporting an increase in the minimum wage could improve the party's support among Hispanic voters. Romney overwhelmingly lost Hispanic voters in the 2012 election.
"The key for our party is to be able to convince the people who are in the working population, particularly the Hispanic community, that our party will help them get better jobs and better wages," he said.
Romney's 2012 loss also came in part because a video surfaced of him saying 47 percent of Americans were too dependent on government to vote for him. Some within the party said Friday that Romney — who made a fortune in the private equity business — is not the right messenger to address the minimum amount Americans should earn.
"There's no movement organized around him. After he lost, we all just went back to life as usual," said Rick Tyler, a Washington-based Republican consultant.
In the past several State of the Union addresses, President Obama has proposed a significant increase in the federal minimum wage, and has even cited Romney's position.
"Here's an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: Let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on," Obama said in his 2013 address.
Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 would raise earnings for 16.5 million Americans but would cause businesses to cut about 500,000 jobs, according to a report done earlier this year by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The minimum wage in Massachusetts is among the nation's highest at $8, but that could increase to $11 over three years under legislation passed by the state Senate. The Massachusetts House passed legislation increasing the minimum wage to $10.50 over two years, but the chambers need to work out a compromise before the bill heads to the governor's desk. Ever since Romney ran against then-Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, he has advocated tying the minimum wage to an index such as inflation. As governor, Romney vetoed a minimum wage bill in 2006 because he said the increase was too steep and should have been tied to inflation.
In 2012, Romney initially stuck by that position, saying that as president he would increase the minimum wage by tying it to inflation. But under criticism from conservatives, Romney backed off in March 2012, telling CNBC there were other factors to consider and that "right now, there's probably not a need to raise the minimum wage."
On Friday, Romney did not say how high the minimum wage should be raised, or whether he agrees with the $10.10 rate Democrats have proposed. In the past, he has advocated for gradual increases and then pegging it to inflation rather that have Congress approve sporadic increases.
While not picking a favorite in the 2016 race, Romney said, "I'm going to be supporting someone who represents the practical conservatives I think we need," adding, "I think our best prospects of getting back the White House are with someone who has not run twice before as I have."