January 23, 2007    Volume 14, No. 2

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One Last Look At The Midterm Election: Democrats Rode Into Office On Strength Of Trade & Middle-Class Economic Issues



BY RICHARD McCORMACK richard@manufacturingnews.com


NAFTA and CAFTA are alive and well, and have become a potent political force. "Right after the CAFTA vote [last year], prominent pundits said it was not going to play a role in any [congressional electoral] race," says Todd Tucker, research director of the Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. Mickey Cantor, the U.S. Trade Representative in 1994, said that NAFTA's passage would have a political half-life of a week.

But NAFTA, CAFTA and "free trade" played a prominent role in 30 House races and seven Senate races won by Democratic challengers over Republican incumbents. Virtually every Democratic challenger ran against the Iraq War, but the difference between candidates who won and lost was decided upon by how strongly they emphasized fair trade and middle-class economic security issues.

"War criticism was a necessary but insufficient basis for electoral support," writes Tucker and fellow Trade Watch analyst Chris Slevin in the latest issue of The Democratic Strategist. "Anyone who thought that merely being opposed to a war of choice that is costing American lives would carry the day was proved wrong. The difference between the war-critic Democrats who won and the war-critic Democrats who lost was largely the economics issue."

In both Senate and House races, not a single fair-trade proponent was ousted by a free trader.

Tucker and Slevin assessed the Democratic challengers running against incumbents in competitive districts on their fair trade platforms and graded them on a scale from A to F. It found that 73 percent of the challengers with the highest grades in support of fair trade (A or A+) beat the incumbent, whereas 72 percent with grades of B, C, D and F lost their challenge.

Tucker and Slevin then compared the record of those taking aggressive stances on fair trade and middle-class economics against the results of key races supported by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The majority -- 11 out of 20 -- of the DCCC's top candidates lost their election bids, even though the Democratic group targeted what it considered to be "winnable" races. All of the losers scored low on the Global Trade Watch fair-trade index. Of the nine DCCC candidates who won, six received A-pluses in the Global Trade Watch fair trade index.

Democratic House candidates that did not stress fair trade and middle-class economics issues did not do well even in districts that were easily won by Democratic Senate candidates on the same ballot who were stressing the issues. Had these losing candidates focused on fair trade issues, the Democrats could have won an additional 10 to 20 seats in the House, says Tucker.

In contrast to the DCCC, fair trade groups "looked beyond the party leadership's top tier and focused on promoting and lending organizing resources to Democrats who recognized the failures of the NAFTA-WTO model and actively embraced a fair trade message," says Tucker. "While several of these races were not deemed winnable by leaders in Democratic circles, nearly all of these candidates ended up winning or coming very close to winning."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seemed unwilling to embrace the deciding issue in the campaign. In one "winnable" race in Pennsylvania, the DCCC put its money on Democratic challenger Lois Murphy in a bid to unseat Republican Jim Gerlach in the Philadelphia suburbs. "Efforts to run a trade-specific get-out-the-vote program were not met with enthusiasm from the DCCC or Murphy camp," says Tucker. The result: Murphy lost by one percentage point. Yet across town, another Murphy -- Patrick -- was taking a run for a seat held by Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, a CAFTA supporter. The DCCC did not expect Murphy to win, but he pulled off an upset, due to a campaign that "prominently and aggressively advocated fair trade and hammered Fitzpatrick for his CAFTA vote," says Tucker.

A grass-roots effort by fair-trade activists helped put many of the Democrats over the top. The recently created Citizens Trade Campaign sent trade policy questionnaires to dozens of candidates and then endorsed 15. It sent organizers to seven of their campaigns and provided financial support for the remaining eight. It developed fair trade media campaigns aimed at independent voters. "In the end, 12 out of the 15 CTC political action committee's candidates won their races, with a thirteenth race -- Democrat Larry Kissell's challenge of CAFTA and fast track flip-flopper Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) in what should have been a solid GOP district -- lost by just a few hundred votes."

Republicans who embraced a fair trade agenda, such as Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Virgil Goode in Virginia, had no problems being re-elected. There were some instances, such as Heath Shuler's win over Rep. Charles Taylor in North Carolina, "where challengers were able to out fair-trade the incumbent," says Tucker.

Some of the 15 Democrats who voted in favor of CAFTA -- the so-called CAFTA 15 -- faced some of the toughest battles they have had as incumbents, despite it being an easy year for Democrats. Rep. Ed Towns in Brooklyn, N.Y., received the lowest margin of victory in his life, receiving less than 50 percent of the vote in a race he likely would have lost had it not been a three-way affair. Rep. Melissa Bean of Illinois was on the defensive as well, with challengers who made an issue of her CAFTA vote. Democratic free traders "were in for a very tough race where they had to spend a lot of money" to retain their seats, says Tucker.

Despite the success of the fair traders, "there is some evidence that top Democratic Party officials may not understand the voter mandate for change on trade policy," says Tucker. "Ninety-two Democrats voted for a lame-duck session measure that will subject the U.S. labor force to more low-wage competition from Vietnam, while several incoming Democratic committee chairs have hinted that they might pursue a more-of-the-same trade policy.

"There is a real sense that after several decades of NAFTA-style policy the impacts have been felt throughout the economy and the voters," says Tucker. "I don't hear any Democratic or Republican strategists saying that endorsing a [NAFTA-style economic policy] is a winning issue. Nobody came out and endorsed free trade. Even Joe Lieberman was running from it in Connecticut. Even ones who were for free trade were distancing themselves from their own records."

What happens next? The fair trade movement is going to have to make positive proposals that are not damaging to the U.S. economy, says Tucker. They must involve those who believe in free trade in developing a better system, "because nobody is against trade," says Tucker. "It's about having specific rules of trade."

To view the analysis by Tucker and Slevin entitled "The Fair Trade Sweep," which includes the list of 37 new members of Congress winning on the fair trade agenda, go to http://www.thedemocraticstrategist.org/0701/slevintucker.pdf.



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