Why Have Some Unions Endorsed a Republican for Senate?

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By Michael Rose

Aug. 12 — Sen. Rob Portman has racked up a handful of endorsements from labor unions, a relative rarity for a Republican, and it's a distinction actively touted by his campaign to be re-elected to his Ohio seat.

Portman “listens to us,” Sonny Nardi, president of an International Brotherhood of Teamsters local in Cleveland and secretary-treasurer of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters political action committee, told Bloomberg BNA. “He understands our position on trade” and is working to prevent China from “dropping all their illegal steel and maneuvering their money against us,” Nardi said.

The Teamsters, like most of organized labor, has vehemently opposed the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which President Barack Obama supports but both major presidential candidates don't. Portman announced his opposition to the trade pact earlier this year.

The Portman campaign announced the endorsement by the Ohio Conference of Teamsters July 25. Nardi said the union's support came after a unanimous vote of 27 officials representing Teamsters locals throughout Ohio. The other unions that have announced their support for Portman are the United Mine Workers, Local 18 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio.

The Teamsters remains the largest U.S. labor union not to have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, although some of its local affiliates have backed various candidates from both parties in down-ballot races. The Operating Engineers union endorsed Clinton, but the Mine Workers and the police union haven't expressed their support for either Clinton or Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Most Unions Endorsed Strickland

But it remains to be seen whether Portman's union endorsements will make a difference in a close race, especially because his opponent, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D), has received the backing of the vast majority of the state's labor organizations.

The Ohio Senate race is largely viewed as a tossup by political observers, and various polls put the two candidates within striking distance of each other. Most recently, however, a Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 11 had Portman leading by 9 percentage points.

Officials with the three other unions that endorsed Portman didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA's requests for comment. Police unions have historically been more likely to endorse Republican candidates, so the endorsement by the FOP of Ohio was less of a surprise, observers told Bloomberg BNA.

Operating Engineers Local 18 endorsed the senator Aug. 3. The same day, another Ohio affiliate of the union, Local 66, endorsed Strickland.

“We are proud to endorse Rob Portman and look forward to working with him to improve Ohio’s infrastructure and keep our state moving forward,” Operating Engineers Local 18 Business Manager Richard Dalton said in a statement released by the Portman campaign. “Rob has proven time and again that he will do what it takes to protect Ohio families and fight for middle-class jobs and increased wages.”

Both Sides Claim Concern for Workers

Strickland has earned endorsements of the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers, among many others, according to his website.

David Bergstein, a campaign spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA by e-mail that “Ted has earned the endorsement of the overwhelming majority of labor unions like the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, SEIU and AFSCME because of his proven commitment to fighting for working families.” AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“Senator Portman was the co-sponsor of a national right to work law, has opposed important middle class priorities like raising the minimum wage, and voted time and again for job-killing trade deals that have cost Ohio over 300,000 jobs to places like China,” Bergstein said. “The contrast in this election couldn’t be more clear: Ted is on the side of Ohioans who actually work for a living because that’s where he comes from and that’s who he cares about—while Senator Portman is pushing the agenda of his rich and powerful friends at the expense of working families.”

Michawn Rich, a spokeswoman for the Portman campaign, said Strickland has criticized the unions that endorsed Portman, and pointed to a tweet from the Strickland campaign in July with a photo of him meeting with members of the police union.

“Ted Strickland is so desperate and is continuing to attack unions full of hardworking men and women throughout Ohio—the very people he spent last month begging for their support,” Rich told Bloomberg BNA. “Ted’s latest criticism is shameful and smacks of desperation as his campaign continues to hemorrhage support and money.”

“The fact is the United Mine Workers of America, the Ohio Conference of Teamsters, the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 18 all compared the records of both candidates and concluded there is only one person in this race who has a proven record of fighting for Ohio families and that is Rob,” Rich said.

Teamsters Pensions an Issue

Nardi, of the Teamsters, said Portman's advocacy on drug addiction issues has been important to members of the union in Ohio. He also cited the senator's support for shoring up IBT pension plans without the benefit cuts allowed by a 2014 law. One of those pension plans, the massive Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, unsuccessfully sought permission from the federal government to cut benefits for Teamsters retirees. Portman opposed the Central States proposal.

“He's helped us with that issue,” Nardi said, referring to pensions. Portman attended a rally the Teamsters held earlier this year on Capitol Hill in support of legislation to prevent further pension cuts.

“The truth is that once you connect with a friend in the Senate or the House, whether they're a Republican or a Democrat, you should always back that friend,” Nardi said.

Dan Birdsong, a lecturer in political science at the University of Dayton, told Bloomberg BNA it isn't surprising that a few unions would back the incumbent.

“Maybe they’re making a bet to some degree that Portman's going to win,” Birdsong said of the unions that had endorsed the senator. “If he wins and they’re giving him support, they have a stronger case to make when they’re lobbying him.”

Portman ‘Trying to Build a Big Tent.'

Birdsong also pointed to recent polling showing that even though Portman has been in the Senate since 2011, he has surprisingly little name recognition.

“By courting the unions and getting their endorsement, he can help people who don’t know anything about him get a little more sense about who he is,” Birdsong said.

“Portman is trying to build a big tent,” Kyle Kondik, a researcher at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and author of the recently published book “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” told Bloomberg BNA. “To the extent any Republican can get support from labor, then that’s a feather in his or her cap.”

Kondik also found it somewhat surprising that the Mine Workers had endorsed Portman over Strickland, even though the Democratic candidate comes from the area of the state most associated with the coal industry.

“He's a southeast Ohio guy,” Kondik said of Strickland. “To the extent that there are mining jobs in Ohio, they're in southeast Ohio.” However, “as Democrats increasingly become the party of environmentalism, that isn’t necessarily the message that jibes with coal mining,” he said.

At the time of the Mine Workers' endorsement, on June 2, Portman said in a statement that Strickland “has a record of turning his back on Coal Country.”

Strickland Legacy an Issue?

As for reasons why unions might decline to support Strickland, “at least among elites in the state, I don’t think Strickland’s governorship is remembered as being particularly successful,” Kondik said.

Paul Beck, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University, told Bloomberg BNA that the Portman campaign has emphasized that Strickland was viewed as a “very union-friendly governor,” but that he left Ohio with a budget deficit after his term ended in January 2011. But Beck called that a “manufactured issue,” because virtually every state had a deficit at the time.

“Portman has charged that Strickland left this hole, which, while true, is something Strickland would have closed if he had been re-elected,” Beck said.

As for whether union endorsements will make much of a difference in the Senate race, Beck said they would “make less of a difference than they used to.”

“There are fewer union members than there used to be, and fewer union families,” Beck said. On top of that, the union “rank and file is not necessarily inclined to follow the leaders as far as endorsements go,” he said. He pointed specifically to Trump, and said it was likely many Ohio union members would vote for him.

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Rose in Washington at mrose@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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