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Making Trade an Issue: Will the Fourth Time Finally Be the Charm?

“We think CAFTA has the ability to be one of those watershed issues of the 2006 election cycle,” a Democratic spokesman said shortly after the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed Congress recently.

I might think the exact same thing if I hadn’t been watching and writing about elections for the past 25 years. [IMGCAP(1)]

While trade votes would seem to have everything it takes to get the public’s attention, generate turnout and move voters from one party to the other, there is precious little evidence that high-profile Congressional trade votes have much electoral impact.

Yes, organized labor torpedoed the political career of then-Rep. Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio) in 2002 after he supported NAFTA. But Sawyer’s district was dramatically redrawn after the 2000 Census, so he didn’t begin with the advantages any incumbent would normally have. And since Sawyer lost in a Democratic primary, organized labor’s clout and the trade issue’s importance were particularly significant.

But trade flopped as a supposedly decisive issue for David Beasley (R) and Inez Tenenbaum (D) in their 2004 bids for the Senate in South Carolina. Both candidates lost to then-Rep. Jim DeMint, an unapologetically free-trade Republican in a state that allegedly suffered significant job losses because of trade agreements.

And it flopped in 2002, when Democrats targeted North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes (R) for ultimately supporting a bill to give President Bush trade promotion authority. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted the Republican Congressman in a barrage of paid television ads for supporting the measure, but Hayes won re-election with 53.6 percent, virtually the same percentage Bush received in the district two years earlier.

If supporting “free trade” is serious electoral baggage anywhere in this country, the Carolinas, once home to a vibrant textile industry that has since moved abroad, ought to be the place. So far, it hasn’t worked that way.

That’s why I have to wonder about Democratic threats directed against Hayes after his recent vote for CAFTA. I’ve seen this movie two or three times already, and I’m not sure why I should assume it will now have a different ending.

Democratic operatives are criticizing Hayes, as they did in 2002, for saying that he opposed the trade agreement but ultimately voting for it. The Republican is saying now what he said back then — that he received specific concessions from the White House that would benefit the people of North Carolina’s 8th district, and that’s why he eventually voted for the hemispheric trade agreement.

Democrats don’t have to buy that argument, of course. But they also have to start convincing key voters that Hayes’ trade vote is so important and so wrong that they need to stop supporting him and vote instead for his Democratic opponent.

Democrats argue that Hayes’ 2002 victory doesn’t say anything about the potential effectiveness of the trade issue, since his opponent in that contest, attorney Chris Kouri, wasn’t well-funded. Hayes survived that contest, they insist, only because most voters didn’t know about his record and never took his opponent seriously. This time, they will, say Democratic insiders.

But if trade was such a hot-button issue for voters in the district, it should have taken its toll on Hayes by now. Instead, he won by 11 points in 2004 in a race that was never competitive.

Over and over again during the 2004 presidential campaign we heard that Ohio’s poor economy, and particularly the state’s serious job losses, could hand the red state to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). It didn’t happen.

While Bush’s margin in the state shrunk from 166,000 in 2000 to 117,000 in 2004, the president carried the state once again, rallying GOP voters who apparently were unmoved by complaints about free trade.

Every election cycle is different, of course, and it’s possible that trade could become a decisive issue in a district or two. Hayes, in particular, can’t afford to ignore Democratic attacks about his vote for CAFTA if the party fields a credible challenger.

But, at least until anti-free-trade forces claim a political scalp in a general election, dispassionate political observers and reporters should be very skeptical about the issue’s impact, and about claims that CAFTA will become a decisive factor in the 2006 Congressional elections.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report