Donald Trump’s deviation from Republican orthodoxy on trade has put Sen. Rob Portman in a bind as he faces re-election.
Before entering the Senate, the Ohio Republican served as United States Trade Representative for former President George W. Bush and supported free trade agreements such as the Central America Free Trade Agreement.
Portman also supported the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, when he was member of the House. The man who’s trying to take his Senate seat, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, was also serving in the House at that time and voted against NAFTA.
In a Senate vote last year, Portman voted in favor of Trade Promotion Authority , which gives presidents the ability to get up-or-down votes in Congress on trade deals without amendments.
But those decisions may have put Portman at odds not only with his Democratic opponent, but also with the trade philosophy of Donald Trump, his party’s presumptive presidential nominee — and many Republican voters.
A Pew survey from March showed 67 percent of Trump supporters and 53 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters see free trade as a bad thing.
Trump, a real estate tycoon with global business interests, has effectively split with big business on international trade pacts. Republicans have long been associated politically with corporate interests, making his position yet another area of conflict between him and the establishment GOP.
Trade has emerged as a key issue in presidential and down-ballot races in Rust Belt battleground states over manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas. Some, like Trump, Democrat Bernie Sanders and labor unions, say trade agreements play part in that shift, while supporters of those deals, like President Barack Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say globalization opens new opportunities for American companies and markets for U.S. goods.
Strickland’s campaign recently released a video clip of Portman giving a floor speech in 2011 in which he spoke positively about the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement involving the U.S. and Pacific Rim countries.
“We have one multilateral agreement, which I support moving forward on — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — but, frankly, there are over 100 bilateral negotiations going on right now, and America is not a partner in any of them,” Portman said in the video.
The Strickland campaign promoted the video as never-before released. But Portman’s communications director, Michawn Rich, labeled it an old attack from Strickland’s campaign.
Portman’s position on the TPP has since shifted. At least on this one trade issue, Portman and Trump may not be that far apart.
Trump criticized the trade deal last week in Clairsville, Ohio, describing it as “a death blow to American manufacturing.”
In February, several months after the full text of the TPP agreement was released, Portman said he was now opposed to it.
Portman told reporters that he supports free trade, but only if it is fair to American workers . He told reporters that the agreement didn’t create a level playing field.
Rich, Portman’s communications director, said the senator had supported negotiations in hopes it would be a good deal despite his criticisms.
“He’s consistently laid out concern on TPP,” she said, pointing out that Portman’s 2011 floor speech was in the context of debating China’s currency manipulation, which could give it an unfair edge in trade.
“I believe this administration should label China a currency manipulator because I think it is clear there continues to be manipulation,” Portman said at the time.
Many, including Trump, have also warned that there are insufficient protections against currency manipulation in the TPP.