Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is reaching out to Ohio labor unions to defend his record on trade.

Portman, who faces a tough reelection campaign next year in a state that twice voted for President Obama, is casting himself as a fighter for U.S. workers who has sought to improve trade deals.

{mosads}It’s an image he needs to build in a state where pro-trade policies are often unpopular.

In the past six weeks alone, he has met with union leaders representing workers at Ohio businesses Cooper Tire & Rubber, AK Steel and paper manufacturer Glatfelter. He’s also met with workers at those companies.

“I’ve always met with union workers,” Portman said in an interview. “My message is always the same: We believe in exports, but we also believe imports have to be fair.”

Portman’s record on trade could be a vulnerability in next year’s election.

Portman served as a U.S. trade representative for President George W. Bush’s administration and voted in favor of granting President Obama fast-track trade authority, which helped the White House complete talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Polls show Portman running neck and neck with former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who led the Republican 46 percent to 43 percent in a Quinnipiac University Poll released last week.

A victory by Portman would make it difficult for Democrats to retake the Senate majority; a loss would put Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) one step closer to being Senate majority leader.

Portman  has yet to announce his position on the TPP, which Strickland vehemently opposes.

The TPP would tie the U.S. economy to those of 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Unions strongly oppose the TPP and argue it would lower wages and eliminate U.S. jobs.

Daniel Birdsong, a political science lecturer at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said the TPP “puts Portman in a political pickle.”

“He is an advocate of free trade, but the TPP is associated with a Democratic president,” Birdsong noted.

Backing the trade deal could hurt Portman, but opposing it would be seen as a real about-face after he worked to open markets for Bush.

Ohio Democrats are already attacking Portman’s trade record, and the Ohio chapter of the AFL-CIO endorsed Strickland earlier this month.

“Senator Portman has sided with the corporate outsourcers who fund his campaign every single chance he’s had, and if sending Ohio jobs overseas weren’t enough, he’s voted to give them a tax break for the road,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said.

To counter the attacks, Portman has reached across the aisle. He partnered with home state colleague Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who opposes the TPP, to press the administration to include requirements in the trade deal that would make it harder for countries to devalue their currency to increase exports. But the official language of the TPP has not been made public, so the result of their efforts is unknown.

“The administration ought to be tougher on currency manipulation,” Portman said.

Portman also partnered with Brown on legislation that Obama signed into law that creates an official channel for U.S. businesses to petition officials, both internationally and in the U.S., if they think foreign companies are illegally undercutting American product prices.

Portman said that the unions “helped us write the bill.”

On Friday, he spoke at Ohio State University at an Innovation Forum attended by Ohio manufacturers, including Whirlpool Corp., which employs 10,000 people in the Buckeye State and exports more than 10 percent of its U.S.-made products to foreign markets. 

Portman again highlighted his bipartisan effort with Brown.

“One of the challenges is that our trade policy doesn’t allow American companies to compete on a level playing field,” Portman said at the Innovation Summit on Friday. “[Brown and I] recently passed legislation… that is actually helping them.”

Birdsong said Portman’s outreach to unions and manufacturers could make the difference in the race.

“Senator Portman may not win union households, and he doesn’t have to,” he said. “But he must minimize the traditional union support for Democrats. His efforts may prove to do just that.”

Tags Charles Schumer Rob Portman Sherrod Brown

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