In Trump Convention Shadow, Ohio’s Portman Faces Trade Backlash

  • Nominee’s rhetoric boosts free trade as issue in Senate race
  • Governor’s decision to not back Trump splits party in Ohio

Senator Rob Portman listens during a hearing in Washington on July 30, 2015.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republican Rob Portman overcame charges that free-trade deals he promoted for President George W. Bush decimated industrial jobs in Ohio to win a U.S. Senate seat. Locked in a tough re-election battle, Portman is now fending off the same attacks from Democrats channeling a new spokesman: Donald Trump.

Unwittingly enlisted by campaign ad makers, the Republican presidential nominee is the featured voice in a digital ad for Portman’s Democratic challenger, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland.

“Every trade deal we make stinks” because “we don’t have smart people making the deals,” Trump’s is heard saying in the Strickland ad, which attacks Portman’s performance as Bush’s trade negotiator.

The ad, which dubs Portman “the best senator China’s ever had,” is part of Strickland’s attempt to portray the senator as an architect of a free-trade policy that China and other countries take advantage of to undercut U.S. manufacturers.

For Republicans who want to hold onto control of the Senate next year, Portman’s race is effectively a must-win. 

And in the current political climate, trade is a big vulnerability for Portman, particularly in the swing state of Ohio, which has lost many manufacturing jobs in recent years. An added vulnerability is having the polarizing Trump as the party’s standard-bearer, which helps explain why the Ohioan spent so much time avoiding his party’s convention in his home state this week.

Separation From Trump

Portman even held his own "mini-convention" of events, giving him separation from Trump’s coronation. He has also defended Governor John Kasich against attacks from Trump and his campaign for failing to endorse him.

But on trade and other economic issues, Portman has repeatedly sought to align his message with Trump’s, even as he’s criticized the party’s nominee for proposals like halting Muslims from entering the U.S. or attacking a "Mexican" judge born in Indiana.

"On the trade issue, as you know, he’s pushed back on China and I have too. I’ve taken the lead among Republicans on the issue of currency manipulation," he said in an interview in Cleveland.

Portman, who in the Senate has pushed legislation to impose trade sanctions on China and other countries for currency manipulation, has endorsed Trump, though not all of the real-estate mogul’s policy statements. Portman has told reporters that he would defend the trade agreements that he supported.

After supporting trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, Portman earlier this year, came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade agreement that President Barack Obama negotiated with Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim nations. 

Portman said TPP wouldn’t get his support until there are better provisions on currency manipulation, automobile sales and protection of U.S.-patented biological products.

Mixed Results

So far, it’s unclear how effective Strickland’s tactics have been. A Quinnipiac University poll released July 14 showed Portman ahead by 7 percentage points, though an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released July 13 said the race was a dead heat.

Portman’s campaign has hit back with ads noting Ohio lost more than 350,000 jobs when “Retread Ted” was governor.

And Portman stoutly defends his record of accomplishment in Congress and as U.S. trade representative in 2005 and 2006 to curb China’s unfair trade practices and currency manipulation. 

“It’s where I’ve been forever,” he said in an interview this week. 

“I have always been for cracking down on trade” violations “and I’ve been successful at doing it.” he said, noting that he was the first U.S. trade representative to file a complaint against China at the World Trade Organization. 

Trade Deals

As trade representative, Portman helped push the Central American Free Trade Agreement through Congress, where it passed the Republican-controlled House by two votes. After the vote, Portman pledged to a review of U.S. trade deals with China, telling reporters that lawmakers “are looking to be assured that we enforce these trade agreements." He jousted with Chinese trade officials over software and movie piracy and textile exports, which the Commerce Department limited because of market disruption.

In the Senate, Portman teamed up with Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and fellow Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to push legislation to impose sanctions for China’s currency manipulation.

Still, Trump’s appeal to workers and business leaders whose industries have been decimated by foreign competition may also help Strickland exploit Portman’s record as a supporter of free-trade deals during his 14 years in the House, where one of his earliest votes was to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as during his past nearly six years in the Senate. 

If Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric isn’t awkward enough for Portman, the party’s split in Ohio is an additional complication. Kasich, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, boycotted this week’s convention while refusing to back Trump.

‘Moral Courage’

It gave Strickland an opening to contrast Portman’s endorsement of Trump with Kasich’s “moral courage and fortitude" to “stand up to the most toxic and divisive presidential nominee in modern history," said David Bergstein, campaign spokesman for the Democratic challenger.

The decision by Kasich, the titular head of the Ohio Republican Party, to sit out the presidential election campaign, may pose another problem for Portman: turning out the party faithful at the polls in November.

“The problem is turnout operations look better if they work for the entire ticket,” said University of Akron political scientist John Green, an expert on Ohio politics. “If the presidential candidate is unpopular, it’s a challenge” for down-ballot candidates to motivate party activists “to come out” and support get-out-the-vote efforts, Green said.

‘Iffy State’

Former Ohio Republican Representative Deb Pryce, who served with Portman in the House, said Kasich’s decision doesn’t “make it any easier” for the senator’s re-election bid. “But I also think there are ways to compensate” because “every Rob Portman supporter isn’t necessarily going to be Trump supporter, either,” she said in an interview. “Ohio’s a iffy state, it’s really hard to walk that line."

Bergstein said that the Portman campaign operation can’t compete with the unified Democratic campaign for presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and all other party candidates running statewide in Ohio. “All the Democratic field efforts are done through the Ohio Democratic Party, which is the Clinton campaign, the Strickland campaign,” he said in a telephone interview.

Former Republican Senator Mike DeWine, now the state’s attorney general, said Portman can compensate for any decline in party enthusiasm for Trump because he’s done an amazing job with volunteers." Portman “is running about the best grassroots campaign Ohio has seen,” DeWine said.

One advantage for Portman is that he’s popular among Republican regulars, Green said. “The party activists really love the guy."

One of those is David Johnson, the chairman of the Columbiana County Republican Party, whose agreement with Trump’s anti-free trade agenda hasn’t dimmed his support for Portman. The senator “has been aware of the concerns that many of his friends have had on trade,” Johnson said in an interview. “I support free trade but I think a lot of the trade agreements have been manipulated” to give “unfair advantages” to China and other countries.

Backing Business

Originally a convention delegate pledged to Kasich, Johnson said he now enthusiastically supports Trump because the presidential candidate will stand up for businesses like his family’s century-old ceramic tile company.

“I ship tile to China and I pay a 26 percent tariff, they ship to America duty free” he said. Johnson’s company, Summitville Tiles, Inc. once employed 800 workers at three plants and operated 16 distribution centers. Nowadays, “I’m down to my last plant with 150 people working;” and “I am fighting to keep that business alive,” Johnson said in an interview.

Still, Johnson said he held a fundraiser recently for Portman in his hometown of Salem, Ohio. “I am not a single-issue person” even though “trade is important to me." So “even if I didn’t completely support him on trade, there would be so many other issues I would agree with him on.”

Johnson said pollsters are underestimating Republican enthusiasm for Trump in an economically challenged state like Ohio. And with polls showing a tight presidential race in Ohio, traditionally a swing state, turnout for Trump should help Portman among Republican voters, Pryce said. “If Trump gets the Republicans out, I don’t know why they wouldn’t vote for Senator Portman.”

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