WASHINGTON – The man launching his second effort to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan finds himself in the middle of a roaring political fight over a global trade deal that has strong Republican support.
Republican Stewart Mills has to balance the potential fallout from bucking party leaders or risking the anger of voters at home who oppose a trade deal that could aid Asian steel producers they blame for massive layoffs at Iron Range mines.
The debate involves the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that would lower tariffs and set new rules for trade with participating countries, which include much of Asia and Australia.
“There isn’t a lot of enthusiasm in our district for it,” Mills said on a recent trip to Capitol Hill.
Nolan swiftly and strongly came out against the trade agreement, but Mills has taken a much more cautious approach.
“I want to make sure, rather than just rushing to judgment, rushing to a quick reaction, that I do a very, very thorough job and I listen to people in the district,” said Mills, who is undertaking what is likely to be a multimillion-dollar effort to defeat the two-term incumbent.
This is Mills’ second go-round in trying to beat Nolan, and rather than battle over the trade deal, he is trying to frame up the divide around gun rights, national security and Obamacare.
But given the more than 2,000 layoffs on the Iron Range in the last year because of plummeting demand for U.S. steel, the topic is increasingly difficult for Mills to avoid.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been in the works since 2008. If approved by Congress, it would be the biggest trade agreement for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in the 1990s.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken joined Gov. Mark Dayton in demanding strong action from the Obama administration in the wake of a deluge of low-cost steel from China, where the lagging economy is prompting steel producers to flood the global market.
President Obama has pledged more stringent enforcement of steel rules but remains committed to the trade agreement.
Many traditionally Democratic voters in northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District are critical of Obama’s efforts to free up trade across the world. The topic has come up in heated town hall gatherings and at district meetings.
Mills says he is “carefully working through” the proposed trade agreement and talking to people in the district about it before saying definitively how he would vote on the measure if elected.
The issue stirs passions on the Iron Range, where few see any hope that the idled mines will fire up anytime soon.
Tom Rukavina, a St. Louis County commissioner and former state lawmaker, said the job losses have been so swift that Iron Range workers are seeking assurances from politicians that something will be done to get people back to work.
“I don’t think any of these deals have been good for America,” Rukavina said. “It disturbs me that the politicians in Washington, D.C., can’t understand [that] if they lose their domestic steel industry, what are we going to do? Make tanks out of plastic?”
Nolan has carefully tried to echo these sentiments, hammering on the Trans-Pacific deal for more than a year — even before official terms of the agreement were released.
“I’m convinced without any doubt whatsoever that TPP is a race to the bottom,” Nolan said.
He said the country built a great middle class through guaranteeing Social Security, Medicare and health and safety and consumer protections.
“Our competitors don’t follow that,” he said. “We don’t have a level playing field.”
It remains unclear when Congress would actually vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — Republicans facing difficult re-election fights are reluctant to go on the record with their position. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in December that the pact should not come up for a vote before the November elections.
Given that delay, Minnesota’s delegation — even the pro-business Republicans — say publicly they haven’t decided how they feel about it, including GOP Reps. Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer. Outgoing Rep. John Kline said he is still reviewing the text of the deal, but said he is inclined to support trade agreements.
Democrats have been sharper in their criticism, even though this is among Obama’s priorities in his last year.
Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison both oppose the deal. Neither senator has said how they would vote, though Franken said he has “very serious concerns” because of what’s happening on the Iron Range.
Both Democratic presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, say they oppose the trade agreement. In a speech in Hibbing last week, Sanders called the TPP helpful to countries who pay their workers pennies an hour.
Paul Vaaler, a business professor at the Carlson School at the University of Minnesota, said the Trans-Pacific Partnership likely would hurt Minnesota’s iron ore producers because of increased production and competition from Australia.
But Vaaler supports the agreement and thinks both the state and nation stand to gain overall from more trade and more productivity. He noted, however, that the temporary economic adjustments can be painful.
“We [Minnesotans] are lucky because we have a very diverse economy inside the state. We’re not a one-trick pony,” he said. “We have all these headquarters, research and development. … If a worker loses his job in Silver Bay, that worker doesn’t have to go to Atlanta. That’s why Minnesota continues to be a standout.”