Republicans have recently come under attack on the issue of trade in several crucial Rust Belt states that will decide control of the U.S. Senate, and they are not helped by the fact that their party’s presidential nominee agrees with their Democratic opponents.
Donald Trump’s antitrade rhetoric in the 2016 campaign is amplifying Democratic criticisms of Republican candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. His approach dramatically contrasts with the way that past Republican nominees for president have defended the merits of free trade.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the Republican incumbent, has grappled with the trade issue for months and has so far weathered the storm. He currently leads Democrat Ted Strickland and is in a good position to win that race.
But in Pennsylvania and Indiana, two Republicans who are closely trailing Democratic candidates have distanced themselves in recent days from free trade positions, under pressure from their opponents. Like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, both Republicans have been supporters of the TransPacific Partnership but have now said they do not support it.
Sen. Pat Toomey, the Republican incumbent in Pennsylvania, has been a big booster of free trade. But on Aug. 17, he announced that he was opposed to the TPP, a trade agreement being negotiated by the Obama administration with 11 other nations.
“In the TPP, the Obama administration has not gotten a good enough deal for Pennsylvania workers,” Toomey wrote in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We should dump the TPP and return to the negotiating table to get an agreement that would create jobs and economic growth here at home.”
Toomey spent much of his op-ed defending trade as a good thing that provides 200,000 jobs for Pennsylvanians and is “often demonized.” But he said he did not think the TPP protected the pharmaceutical or dairy industries well enough from unfair trade practices by other countries.
Politifact noted that in 2015, Toomey gave a full-throated defense of the TPP as a “very constructive” deal that would actually protect the pharmaceutical industry, and voted in favor of giving President Obama expedited authority to seal trade agreements, known as Trade Promotion Authority.
Democrat Katie McGinty, an environmental expert who served in Bill Clinton’s White House and under former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, is now lambasting Toomey for flip-flopping on the issue.
And in Indiana, the situation is similar. GOP congressman Todd Young said at the end of August that he is “not prepared to support” the TPP because of a lack of protection in the deal for pharmaceuticals as well. Drugmaker Eli Lilly is headquartered in Indianapolis.
Like Toomey, Young was a vocal supporter of giving Obama fast-track trade authority, though he did express concerns over parts of the TPP deal back in early 2015. But under pressure from former Sen. Evan Bayh, the Democrat who retired in 2010 and is now seeking to come back to the Senate, Young has taken a definitive step away from a key trade deal.
An Indiana company has been one of the biggest targets of Trump’s antitrade rhetoric. He has blasted air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier for closing a plant in Indianapolis that employs 1,400 people and moving it to Mexico and said he would impose steep financial penalties on any U.S. company that followed suit. A cellphone video taken by an employee of the announcement to employees went viral earlier this year.
And Trump clinched the Republican nomination in early May after winning the Indiana primary. He has promised to impose steep tariffs on imports from other countries and has said he would negotiate “better trade deals.”
Indiana is also an example of where Trump’s rhetoric on trade is contradicted by reality. The Hoosier state’s economy has benefited from international trade, and its manufacturing sector is healthier than many other states’.
But Trump has made trade one of his top issues, claiming that he can bring jobs back to the U.S. that have been outsourced, without providing much in the way of details.
A Bayh spokesman, Ben Ray, said that trade is one of Bayh’s top three issues as well. Asked if it was strange that Bayh’s position coincided so closely with Trump’s, Ray said: “When Republicans are right on an issue [Bayh will] be with them, and when they’re not he won’t be.”