Observers of the midterm elections must wonder whether Bryan Riley actually watched the races before penning his recent post in The Hill (“Free trade is a winner in recent elections,” Nov. 13). Contrary to Riley’s claims, the midterm elections revealed bipartisan competition to align campaign positions with the American public’s opposition to current U.S. trade policies and the job offshoring they cause. 

In a Pew Research Center national poll released in September, only 20 percent of Americans believed that the trade status quo has led to U.S. job creation, while half of Americans said the result has been U.S. job losses. An even smaller share of Americans – just 17 percent – said they believe that trade has increased U.S. wages, while a plurality see trade as contributing to falling wages for U.S. workers. 


Those results are consistent with a national poll conducted earlier this year by Democratic Hart Research and GOP Chesapeake Beach Consulting, which found that 62 percent of the U.S. voting public opposes expanding status quo trade policies by Fast Tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Opposition to Fast Track was the majority position across all age groups, income brackets and geographic regions. Indeed, just 11 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who voted in favor of Fast Track, while 43 percent of respondents stated they would be less likely to vote for the candidate. 

Despite this data, which follow two decades of polls showing trans-partisan opposition to existing trade deals, Riley makes the bold claim that campaigning against American public opinion on trade is somehow a winning electoral strategy. As evidence, he cherry-picks four midterm races. 

In his first anecdote, Riley implies that Iowa Democratic Representative Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell BraleyOPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward Trump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer MORE lost the Iowa Senate race to Republican Joni Ernst because of his position on trade. His argument appears to consist of two points: 1) Braley voted against three free trade agreements (FTAs) opposed by a plurality of the U.S. voting public, and 2) Braley lost. 

The hole in Riley’s logic should be apparent to anyone who understands cause and effect. Or anyone who watched Braley’s notorious race. 

Braley lost his Senate bid because of his gaffe-filled campaign, not his opposition to unpopular FTAs. The Washington Post has described Braley as “the absolute worst candidate of this election,” who lost “through sheer force of personality.” Politico described Braley thusly: “It’s hard to think of a candidate who’s made as many high-profile gaffes as Braley.” 

It was only after a series of Braley campaign fiascos caused him to slip in the polls for a full month that Iowa GOP officials raised Braley’s opposition to the Korea FTA. Riley oddly focuses on this last-minute tactic as if it influenced the election, while many have interpreted it as trying to provide cover for the Iowa GOP members of Congress that all voted for the Korea FTA, under which the U.S. trade deficit with Korea has ballooned 50 percent. Meanwhile, in Iowa’s second district, House Democrat David Loebsack won a competitive race with a trade voting record identical to Braley’s. 

Riley also highlights Republican David Perdue’s victory over Democrat Michelle Nunn in the race for Georgia’s Senate seat, arguing that Perdue won despite accusations that he had offshored jobs. But closer analysis of that race reveals that Perdue actually defended himself by also seeking to tap into Americans’ anger about offshoring. Indeed, Perdue chose to blame offshoring-friendly policies for the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs, stating, “One man doesn’t decimate an entire industry. We’ve had several industries – apparel, footwear, textile, electronics, even furniture – that in the past 30-40 years have been decimated by these policies and put our manufacturers at a disadvantage relative to the rest of the world.” That view aligns with the American public’s broad opposition to trade policies that incentivize U.S. job offshoring

In hand-picking a few races to make his case, Riley missed high-profile midterm races that featured both candidates competing to portray themselves as the greater opponent of unfair trade. In such races, Republican challengers sought to outdo the fair-trade voting records of Democratic incumbents by proclaiming their own rejection of existing FTAs, while the incumbents touted their votes against the FTAs and their opposition to Fast Track. 

For example, in the closely fought race for Minnesota’s eighth district seat, Republican challenger Stewart Mills tried to convert popular rejection of existing FTAs into rejection of Democratic incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan, using an ad that blamed “politicians like Rick” for “trade deals that reward outsourcers, while killing Minnesota jobs.” Nolan, who was not in office during the votes for any existing FTAs, boasted on his campaign website that he “fought against ‘fast-tracking’ the ongoing TPP trade negotiations, and will continue to stand up for fair trade.” Nolan was one of 151 House Democrats to sign a letter last year against Fast Tracking the TPP. Voters opted for Nolan. 

And in the competitive Michigan Senate race, Republican Terri Lynn Land sought to trump Democratic Representative Gary Peters’ 100 percent record of opposition to FTAs by flaunting her own anti-FTA position, stating in an ad, “My plan will save Michigan jobs by ending unfair foreign trade deals and developing new agreements that open up markets for Michigan exports.” Peters’ campaign website touted his fair trade record, stating, “He has stood up for Michigan manufacturers and opposed any new trade deal that does not require our foreign trading partners play by the same rules as American companies.” Peters beat Land handily although the race had long been deemed competitive. 

Even incumbents who could not themselves claim a fair trade record still campaigned with the anti-unfair-trade frame by attacking their opponents on offshoring, voicing opposition to tax policies that incentivize offshoring or citing instances of being “tough on China.” For example, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA —Biden unveils health care plan | Proposal pitches subsidies, public option | Biden vows if you like your health insurance, 'you can keep it' | Sanders protests planned Philadelphia hospital closure MORE (R-Ky.), with a 100 percent record of supporting unfair trade deals, was obliged to create and air an ad claiming he “fought against unfair foreign trade” after multiple ads attacked him for supporting damaging trade deals and costing American jobs. 

Careful analysis of this election shows that candidates continued to appeal to the American public’s longstanding, trans-partisan majority opposition to existing unfair trade deals. Candidates would be wise to take heed of the recent polls showing that this opposition is stronger than ever, not a few baseless anecdotes. 

Beachy is the research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Public Citizen is a consumer rights advocacy organization.