Republican Sens. Rob Portman and Pat Toomey have been forceful advocates for free trade agreements during their careers in Washington — making their re-election bids all the tougher this year, when they’ll need to count on the very anti-free trade voters being courted by their party’s new leader, Donald Trump.
Mr. Portman, finishing his first term as senator from Ohio, and Mr. Toomey, completing his first term from Pennsylvania, both supported normalizing trade relations with China during previous stints in the House.
Mr. Portman also voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, while Mr. Toomey, who came to the House later, has vociferously defended the deal.
They now find themselves facing not only skeptical voters but also a fierce opponent at the top of their party ticket in Mr. Trump, who on Tuesday said he would demand NAFTA be renegotiated or outright scrapped.
“NAFTA was the worst trade deal in history and China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization has enabled the greatest jobs theft in history,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.
Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College, said Mr. Trump’s stance on trade puts Mr. Toomey in a “very awkward position.”
“They are polar opposites when it comes to trade policies,” Mr. Borick said. “They are just in different worlds.”
Paul A. Beck, professor of political science at Ohio State University, said Mr. Trump also poses a challenge for Mr. Portman, who served as the Bush administration’s top trade representative and is facing a stiff challenge from former Gov. Ted Strickland
“There is probably no one more identified in the Republican Party with free trade than Portman, certainly given his time as the Bush administration’s trade representative,” Mr. Beck said. “He has been very consistently in favor of free trade his whole life.”
The Portman camp downplayed the differences, saying Mr. Trump and Mr. Portman “agree that we must be tougher on China and protect Ohio workers.”
“He is a leader when it comes to leveling the playing field on trade so Ohio workers can compete and win,” said Michawn Rich, a Portman spokesperson.
Mr. Portman also has said he cannot support the Trans Pacific Partnership — the deal involving 12 Pacific Rim countries that President Obama has struck, but which Mr. Trump says he’ll ax.
The Strickland camp, meanwhile, has attacked Mr. Portman, saying “as President Bush’s Trade Czar Portman led the charge to implement unfair trade deals that outsourced hundreds of thousands of good paying jobs to places like China.”
The Toomey campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment on his stances, but he has been a staunch defender of trade deals, including bashing likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during her previous 2008 campaign for waffling on NAFTA — a deal her husband shepherded through Congress.
“Do we really want to go back to the days of less commerce, fewer jobs, and higher unemployment?” Mr. Toomey wrote in a 2008 op-ed. “For some reason, Clinton and Obama are determined to take us there.”
GOP voters seem to feel differently. According to exit polls, more than half of those who voted in the Republican primaries in Ohio and Pennsylvania said trade deals hurt, rather than help, American jobs.
Ohio and Pennsylvania are two of the big three swing states in presidential elections, along with Florida.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are running neck-and-neck in Ohio and in Pennsylvania. Voters in both state said Mr. Trump would be better at creating jobs by 52 percent to 39 percent margin.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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