Labor Brings Trade Fight to Democratic Campaigns

Labor Brings Trade Fight to Democratic Campaigns

By Adam Beshudi in Politico. Above photo: Protest outside Scott Peters’ San Diego office over fast track by Chris Jennewein.

List of how Congresspeople voted on Fast Track:

Click here for the House vote results.

Click here for the Senate vote results.

Labor’s fight against the White House’ free-trade agenda is moving into the trenches in tight Democratic races, with many of the 28 moderates who supported “fast-track” trade promotion legislation now targeted for that and their presumed support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

California Rep. Scott Peters estimates his reelection campaign is likely to see a $200,000 to $300,000 drop in labor donations — about a seventh of his total contributions so far — and fewer ground volunteers knocking on doors unless he changes his trade stance.

The two-term lawmaker, who won reelection by 3 percent of the vote, is likely to face ad buys, call-in campaigns and protests outside his office, labor officials say  just like he did during the fast-track debate.

“We’ve lost some pretty important labor support as a result on the vote on TPA, and that’s painful … ” Peters said. “There’s no doubt there has been a political price.”

Labor’s reprisals could also be decisive in the reelection bids of California Rep. Ami Bera and New York Rep. Kathleen Rice. While the White House has tried to jump to the rescue of those on labor’s target list, giving the lawmakers early endorsements, raising campaign funds and deploying Cabinet officials to praise the members in their districts, it’s too soon to tell whether the protective measures will succeed.

It’s clear to supporters of the Asia-Pacific trade deal that every Democratic vote will count: Fast track squeaked to passage in a 218-210 vote in June, and now, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — who have been among the staunchest supporters of Obama’s trade agenda — are backpedaling on their support for the TPP out of concerns over several provisions.

“It gets your attention,” Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson said of the loss of AFL-CIO backing, adding that trade is an “economic engine” for her Dallas district. “But I cannot neglect the stance and conditions of my district that I pledged heartily to represent.”

Most of the House Democrats who supported fast track, which allowed Obama to finish negotiations on the massive trans-Pacific deal in October, aren’t likely to take positions on the trade pact until later this spring, when the U.S. International Trade Commission releases a congressionally mandated study on the economic impact of the 12-nation agreement.

But it could be they won’t have to voice their positions.

Republican leaders, who are complaining about the deal’s provisions on pharmaceutical protections, financial data rules and other language, indicate a vote might not happen before Nov. 4, with Ryan now saying the support just isn’t there among GOP members.

There’s a chance a vote could get delayed until the next administration and a new Congress, but that hasn’t prompted labor groups to ease off their threats or stop strategizing over which districts to hit the hardest should Congress move forward with a vote.

“So, they want to put it after the election because they think we’ll forget,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said. “Well, we’re not going to forget, and we’re not going to let the American worker forget, and we think they’ll have a tough time explaining their vote to workers who have lost jobs.”

Meanwhile, the White House and trade-friendly lawmakers hope to grow support for the TPP among the two dozen Democrats who were on the fence about fast track but ultimately voted against it, including Denny Heck and Adam Smith of Washington, John Carney of Delaware, Joaquín Castro of Texas, Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

Although she won by a wide margin in 2013, Johnson faces a primary fight against two challengers, including former state representative and Dallas city councilwoman, Barbara Mallory Caraway, who has come out against the trade deal. While the AFL-CIO said it won’t be supporting anyone in her district race, Johnson said it was unfortunate to lose the support of a key constituency group “that’s been my friend and been my endorser.”

In return for her fast-track support, Obama gave Johnson his first official endorsement in the 2016 election cycle — a rare show of favoritism from a sitting president during a party primary fight. The 11-term congresswoman noted also that despite the AFL-CIO’s announcement local labor groups representing transportation and government workers are still writing her checks, and she received unsolicited financial support from sources she declined to identify, which she hopes “will make up for the deficit.”

Peters, whose district is squarely in the National Republic Congressional Committee’s sights, raised $4.5 million to defend his seat in 2014. So far, none of his would-be GOP opponents have outmatched his war chest, which stands at about $1.7 million, but one of his three challengers is Denise Gitsham, a former Republican strategist who worked for Karl Rove in the 2000 presidential campaign and at the White House and has close ties to the GOP fundraising machine.

Since his vote for fast track, a parade of Cabinet officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has cycled through his San Diego district to support his push for things like more wildfire and homelessness funds and the development of biofuels for the military.

Peters even hitched a ride to California on Air Force One for some face time with the president.

“It’s not like he’s committed to anything,” Peters said. “But what we’ve asked for is, we want a chance for my constituents to directly address these issues with people making decisions, and he’s come through on that part.”

Observers in Congress predict Democrats who supported fast track will vote for the Asia-Pacific trade pact since they’ve already exposed themselves politically, adding that those lawmakers believe the agreement will be good for their districts.

“I haven’t heard anyone fading away on this,” said one House Democrat who supports Obama’s trade proposals. “It seems like people who took the [fast track] vote have explained to their constituents where they’re coming from.”

Indeed, many Democrats reacted angrily to labor’s aggressive tactics during the trade promotion authority debate, indicating that a repeat effort by union groups over TPP could backfire, observers said.

“There were members — including members that voted ‘no’ on TPA — that found out how personal the attacks got, and that turned a lot of people off,” a House Democratic aide said. Members “got frustrated with how much vitriol there was from opponents on TPA.”

An exasperated Earl Blumenauer slammed a notepad down on a table during a meeting with labor and trade activists at the height of the debate, telling the group he was frustrated with the constant calls and picketing outside his home and district office.

The Oregon Democrat, a longtime trade supporter who voted for fast track, said in a recent interview that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is “somewhat controversial” in his Portland district. He didn’t say which way he was leaning on the deal, but given his past trade votes and relatively safe position in the upcoming election, he will probably support the deal.

“I have a community that is very trade-dependent, but we also have people who are trade skeptics,” Blumenauer said. “So I’m just going to let the chips fall where they may.”

Johnson also had some run-ins with labor. When she organized a trade dialogue with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman for local union and business leaders in August, national-level labor officials showed up unannounced and dominated the discussion.

“I had not originally invited them, but I made room for them,” Johnson said, adding that she will probably make up her mind onTPP just before a vote.

Sacramento’s Bera became labor’s whipping boy over his support for the fast-track bill. Union groups aired an $84,000 television ad campaign in his district slamming him for his vote and also took more unorthodox measures, such as placing classified ads in the Sacramento Bee and on Craigslist seeking “a congressman w/ backbone to represent working families.”

The two-term congressman, who won reelection by 1 percentage point last election, faces another competitive race this year, this time against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, a Republican who opposes the TPP.

And while Bera has not announced his position on the trade deal, he failed to secure the backing of his local Democratic club because of the backlash from local labor groups over his fast-track vote, which will force him to go hat-in-hand to his party’s state convention next week to seek an endorsement.

“Labor had his back and supported him from the very beginning,” said Robert Longer, vice president of the Communications Workers of America’s local chapter, adding that union groups delivered many of the 1,400 votes that put the congressman over the top in the last election. “We’re not going to work against him, but we’re certainly not working for him. … He needs us more than we need him.”

Peters, who told POLITICO he would likely support the trade deal “if the president delivers the type of agreement that he said he would be delivering when we voted on TPA,” drew a similar threat from the AFL-CIO’s San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council.

The council also has refused to endorse another likely TPP supporter, Rep. Susan Davis, who voted for fast track. But the snub might do little to hurt the San Diego Democrat, who is far more entrenched than her colleague the next district over.

“[Peters is] going to have to win without us, and he wouldn’t have won the first few times without us,” said Dale Kelly Bankhead, acting secretary-treasurer of the council. “It remains to be seen whether he can pull this thing off.”