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0000017a-3b40-d913-abfe-bf44a4f90000Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU news team as the politics reporter and columnist in April 2012 , after 30 years of covering local, state and national politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. On this page, you will find his weekly column, Politically Speaking; the Monday morning political chats with News Director Maryanne Zeleznik and other news coverage by Wilkinson. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio gubernatorial race since 1974, as well as 16 presidential nominating conventions. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots, the Lucasville prison riot in 1993, the Air Canada plane crash at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983, and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. And, given his passion for baseball, you might even find some stories about the Cincinnati Reds here from time to time.

Will International Trade Deals Make The Difference In Ohio's U.S. Senate Race?

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There was an air of breathless urgency in the e-mail from the Ted Strickland for Senate campaign that crashed into thousands of Ohio Democrats’ inboxes Thursday afternoon.

“If there was ever a time to show your support for Ted, that time is NOW.,’’ said the e-mail, signed by Strickland campaign manager Rebecca Pearcy.

“Polls have Ted in a dead heat with Rob Portman…Pundits are calling Ted’s campaign one of the most important races in the country to winning back the Senate majority…EVERYONE is watching to see just how much grassroots support we have.

“The momentum is on our side. But June 30 is the most important test of our campaign so far. The other side is worried, and they are watching our fundraising numbers for any – and I mean any – sign of weakness.

“But with your help, we can rattle them even more.”

And below that urgent message – a raft of buttons you can click that will send you to the Strickland campaign website to make campaign contributions.

So, you might ask, what’s the big rush? Well, Tuesday, June 30 is the quarterly campaign finance reporting deadline.

And what’s this business about Strickland being in a “dead heat” with Rob Portman?

The most recent independent poll, released last Monday by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, had Strickland, the former Democratic governor, leading the Republican incumbent senator, Portman, by six percentage points – outside the margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.

Then there’s the part about “EVERYONE” watching what the Strickland campaign is doing. In this case, “EVERYONE” means the relative handful of politicos on both sides who are paying attention to a 2016 U.S. Senate race in Ohio.  Almost everyone else is paying attention to summer vacations, baseball, trips to the swimming pool and the local weather forecast.

So, why the sense of urgency?

Well, because it really is a close race, depending on whom you ask. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm in North Carolina, put out an independent poll earlier in June that was, in fact, a statistical dead heat – Portman, 43 percent; Strickland, 41 percent.

“We’ve polled the Ohio Senate race twice this year now,’’ said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “And both times we’ve found the candidates within two percentage points of each other. Rob Portman hasn’t done much to solidify his position during his first term and that has the race looking like a toss-up.”

The mere thought of losing Portman next year gives the Republican establishment a bad case of the heebie-jeebies in a year where they will be desperately trying to hang on to the Senate majority they won in November 2014.

That is why the Republican money machine will spare no expense in Ohio between now and November 2016 when it comes to holding on to Portman’s seat – and, of course, in winning Ohio for whoever wins the GOP presidential nomination, given the fact that no Republican president has ever won the White House without winning Ohio.

That is why the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Ohio Republican Party, and the Portman campaign have been cranking out web videos and creating web sites slamming Strickland’s record as governor, which happened to take place in the middle of the worst national recession since the Great Depression. The theme of the GOP attacks is that under Strickland’s watch, the state of Ohio lost 350,000 jobs.

If it sounds like a familiar theme, it is. It’s the same one John Kasich used in 2010 to defeat Strickland by two percentage points and make Strickland a one-term governor.

There is probably a sense of urgency at Strickland headquarters these days over the fact that, about two weeks ago, Portman’s campaign launched a six-figure digital ad buy. It’s a two-minute video that focuses on Portman’s efforts to have language removed from a federal spending bill that might have driven up costs for some Ohio manufacturers.

It was shot at Gregory Industries, a company in Canton that makes guardrails. There is plenty of testimony from management and workers about what a great guy Rob Portman is.

“Rob Portman is on the side of the guy working two jobs, long shifts, trying to make ends meet,’’ a worker says. “Rob Portman is on our side.”

And the Portman campaign says this is just the first in a series of such ads.

Strickland has a primary opponent to deal with, Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld, who has resisted all pressure from the Ohio Democratic Party establishment to get out of the race – even though the Ohio Democratic Party, the National Democratic Senatorial Committee, former President Bill Clinton, Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, and a host of Ohio elected officials have endorsed Strickland.

Ohio Democrats, Sittenfeld says, deserve a choice.

The GOP establishment is ignoring Sittenfeld, for the most part, and tossing their bombs at Strickland, who they expect will be their opponent next fall.

And, even though it is highly unlikely that Strickland would be able to match Portman dollar for dollar in a general election campaign, the fact that Portman is either in a flat-footed tie or trailing by single digits, has the GOP more than a bit concerned.

If indeed it is Strickland vs. Portman after next March’s primary election, what will make the difference?

The Ohio Democratic Party and the Strickland campaign are hoping that it is the on-going national debate over “fair trade” and “free trade” and what impact the international trade agreements that Portman has supported over the years – and continues to support – have had on Ohio jobs.

Strickland showed up Thursday on a liberal webcast talk show, hosted by Ed Schultz, who laid out Portman for his vote earlier this week in favor of “fast track” legislation, which would allow the Senate to vote up or down on a president’s trade agreements, but not amend them. The fast track legislation was a win for President Obama and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) that is being negotiated with 12   Pacific rim countries. Portman has said he supports the idea of TPA, but wants to see the details and wants provisions that will protect Ohio jobs.

Strickland followed U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Niles) on the Schultz show, another opponent of “fast track.”

“Ohioans have never recovered from NAFTA, and now they bring this job agreement forth, and you know we feel betrayed,’’ Strickland told Schultz. “So many of us feel absolutely betrayed, because as Congressman Ryan said, we got nothing out of this; they got everything they wanted; we got nothing.

“And I want to tell you, Ed, if I’m in the Senate and I hope to be, and they bring this trade back after they’ve negotiated it in secret and it’s a bad deal, I’ll vote it down,” Strickland said. “Even if we can’t amend it, we’ll just vote the damn thing down.”

Nearly two weeks before the fast-track vote, Strickland’s Democratic primary opponent, Sittenfeld, put out a statement saying the “TPP is bad enough, but fast track is even worse.”

“In my view, giving this President – or any other future President –a six-year blank check to negotiate trade deals that can only be voted up or down is an abdication of Congressional authority,’’ Sittenfeld said.

Portman – who was, for a time, the U.S. trade representative for President George W. Bush -  is resolute in his defense of international trade deals, saying they create new markets for American products. And that, he says, means jobs in America.  

“Anybody who does not want to expand exports has to explain why, because we want more exports; they create not just more jobs but better jobs in Ohio,” Portman said in a conference call with Ohio reporters Thursday. “They pay more; they provide better benefits.

“We need to export more, not less, because 95 percent of the consumers are outside of America and we want to send more products stamped ‘made in America,’’’ Portman said.

On the day of the trade votes, Portman’s Senate office said nothing about the fast track legislation, but it did send out a press release trumpeting the fact the Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation that passed included the “Leveling the Playing Field” amendment he and his fellow Ohio senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, included in the bill.

“Our measure ensures that American workers can remain globally competitive by holding foreign countries accountable when they skirt the rules by illegally under-selling of subsidizing imports,’’ Portman said in a written statement.

It also contains his provision to extend the Health Coverage Tax Credit, which Portman said is “vital” for United Steel Workers and Delphi retirees in Ohio.

“Now that the trade package has passed with my provisions to protect Ohio workers, I will continue my fight for a balanced approach to trade that increases exports while also holding foreign competitors accountable,’’ Portman said. “It’s the right thing to do for Ohio and for middle-class jobs.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is nowhere near complete. But when it does land in the Senate, it will spark the debate all over again in Ohio’ U.S. Senate race.

Would it kill Ohio jobs and send them overseas, as Strickland and Sittenfeld say? Or would it grow Ohio jobs by increasing exports, as Portman says?

In a race as tight as this one appears to be, trade could be the difference-maker.