The Liberal Democrat Who Backs Trump’s Trade War

(Bloomberg) -- No one would mistake Sherrod Brown for a Donald Trump supporter.

Yet one of the most solidly liberal Democrats in the U.S. Senate is lining up behind the president on trade in his bid for a third term in Ohio, a state critical both in this year’s congressional elections and the 2020 presidential contest.

The Liberal Democrat Who Backs Trump’s Trade War

Brown, who is comfortably ahead in polls, says he has a winning formula. He sees his stance as a way for Democrats to peel away Trump voters -- especially in the industrial Midwest and blue-collar areas in Ohio, where the president’s populist stance on trade and restoring manufacturing jobs helped propel him to the White House.

“I will get a number of Trump voters because I fought for the things that Trump campaigned on, long before he did,’’ said Brown, who has long opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals. “My position on trade is the mainstream position for the country.’’

Brown’s strategy is unusual for a Democrat. The party’s candidates for the House and Senate in parts of the country where trade has emerged as a key issue are largely taking the opposite position ahead of the Nov. 6 elections that will determine which party controls both chambers of Congress. They’re faulting Trump’s trade policies in states that are being hit with the effects of retaliation from other countries that have pushed up costs or shrunk markets.

Democratic Opposition

In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp has highlighted the impact of China’s retaliatory tariffs on the state’s farmers. In a tight race in Missouri, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has blamed the Trump tariffs for threatening jobs at a local nail factory. And U.S. House candidate Lisa Brown, a Democrat from Washington, has touted the risks to local farmers and ranchers and says her opponent -- Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 House Republican -- hasn’t done enough to oppose the president’s “reckless trade and tariff war.”

The Liberal Democrat Who Backs Trump’s Trade War

The president’s trade policies put many Republicans in a difficult position: If they fault Trump, they risk offending his supporters. If they back his approach on trade, they offend businesses that have historically supported the party and opposed the tariffs. So many of them are treading lightly. Democrats in some red states are doing the same, as faulting the president could limit their ability to win GOP and independent votes.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance of American Manufacturing, a coalition of domestic industry and the United Steelworkers, said he warned Democrats about attacking Trump’s trade policies.

“I’ve cautioned Democrats that thinking that you’re going to score political points by opposing the president on trade is both short-sighted and is not going to produce many electoral returns for you,’’ Paul said.

The Liberal Democrat Who Backs Trump’s Trade War

Trump won the industrial Midwestern states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan in part because he connected with working-class voters who thought both mainstream parties had abandoned them on economic issues and blamed free-trade deals such as Nafta for the loss of manufacturing jobs, said John Brabender, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to former Pennsylvania senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum.

A candidate’s record on trade and the culture of their state plays a big role in how they approach the issue, Brabender said.

Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania are among the states with more than 175,000 jobs supported by goods exports in 2016, according to the International Trade Administration. Pennsylvania has lost the 4th most manufacturing jobs among states since Nafta took effect in 1994, while Ohio is 5th and Michigan is 7th, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

The Liberal Democrat Who Backs Trump’s Trade War

Brown has been open about supporting Trump on trade and said he’s just following the same stance he has his whole career. He’s worked closely with the White House on a renegotiated Nafta and even blocked a bipartisan effort to derail Trump’s power to impose tariffs.

The senator sent a letter to the president eight days after the 2016 election urging to keep his promises on trade, and Brown’s first call to the future Trump administration went to Dan DiMicco, former Nucor Corp. chief executive officer who led Trump’s trade team during the transition. Brown often mentions his contacts with fellow Ohio native Robert Lighthizer, the president’s trade representative.

The Ohio senator also promised in February to deliver some Democratic votes for a renegotiated Nafta, provided it protected workers. Now that the deal -- known as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA -- has been struck, Brown is among a handful of Democrats who are publicly supportive but have been hardcore opponents of other deals.

Labor-friendly politicians such as Brown have felt frozen out by the party’s trade establishment for decades, and they’re getting more access to policy making under Trump, said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Whatever one thinks of the new USMCA, it does check some of labor’s boxes,’’ he said. “Brown and others in the party are at least going to give it a serious look.’’

Campaign Issues

The trade deal, which requires congressional approval, hasn’t become much of a campaign issue nationally.

For Brown, his approach on trade has cut off an avenue for his Republican opponent, Jim Renacci, a four-term congressman who has Trump’s endorsement but has also backed free-trade deals.

“It has inoculated him against criticism from those who agree with Donald Trump on the trade issue,’’ said Ted Strickland, a former Democratic Ohio governor and congressman who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016. “It’s quite frankly given Renacci nowhere to go.’’

Renacci has played up Brown’s long tenure in Washington and opposition to other administration policies, such as judicial appointments -- Brown opposed Trump’s nominations of both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh -- and his own access to Trump.

Trump Connection

“I’m the person who has the relationship with the president, who supports the agenda but disagrees with him when I have to,’’ Renacci said.

Some Republicans see cynicism in Democratic efforts to connect with working-class voters.

“Sherrod Brown wants to eat the trade cheesecake without getting the Trump calories,’’ said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “The Democrats who want to speak to Trump voters will pick and choose the issues where they agree with the president.’’

Brown, who voted against Nafta in one of his first acts as a member of Congress in 1993 and wrote a book entitled “Myths of Free Trade,’’ said he’s not worried about angering Democrats by working with Trump because constituents know his record.

“They don’t expect me to flip my position because they don’t personally like the president,’’ he said. “I’m not a supporter of his on almost every other issue.’’

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.