It’s the Chinese, Stupid

Are Democrats so afraid of getting crushed in the midterm elections that they've turned to demonizing China?; JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images; Alex Wong/Getty Images; Wikipedia; Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

It’s a political strategy as tried and true as stump speeches, barbecues, and baby-kissing: When times are tough in your district, find someone else to blame. With U.S. midterm election campaigns now in high gear, the boogeyman of choice in regions with high unemployment and sluggish manufacturing is — unsurprisingly — China. And with President Barack Obama struggling to cajole an apathetic base, Democrats have been playing the red-menace card more than their Republican opponents.

Democrats in the rust belt — the part of the country hardest hit by the downturn in steel, auto manufacturing, and other heavy industries — are making a concerted effort to blame unemployment on outsourcing, painting their Republican opponents as pro-corporate politicians who care more about maximizing profits than they do about keeping jobs in Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Ohio. But in a year when many Republicans are shedding the establishment mantle in favor of Tea Party populism, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher

Running for: U.S. Senate

Quote: “Congressman Rob Portman knows how to grow the economy … in China”

Strategy: A television ad with this tag line features a map of China over opponent Portman’s name, as well as a slightly sinister black-and-white shot of Chinese factory workers. As Fisher, Ohio’s lieutenant governor, has told the Associated Press, he thinks that “This election will be about a choice between the past and the future… It will be a choice between made in America and made in China.”

Ohio’s job market has been in a 10-year recession as industrial jobs have fled the state; the Senate race this year has been all about who can get more Ohioans back to work. Fisher blames liberal trade policy for sending jobs overseas, while his opponent, former U.S. Rep Rob Portman (R-OH) blames the incumbent Democratic legislature. Every single trade agreement “should be reassessed … and then determined whether or not it should be renegotiated,” says Fisher. But Portman counters that most of the jobs Ohio has lost have gone to other states, not foreign countries. So far, the strategy doesn’t seem to be helping Fisher. A recent Reuters poll puts Portman ahead with a 13-point lead.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland

Running for: re-election

Quote: “Kasich and Wall Street made millions outsourcing while Ohio lost jobs.”

Strategy: Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, who is up for re-election against former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, has been running a similar television ad to Fisher’s. He says that in 2000, his opponent voted for a “special trade deal forChina,” which his campaign claims resulted in the loss of 91,000 Ohio jobs. Strickland has repeatedly attacked his opponent for voting in favor of normalizing trade with China when he was in Congress.

But both a Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial and an independent report by PolitiFact, a Pulitzer-Prize winning national project of the St. Petersburg Times, have debunked Strickland’s assertions, saying that the numbers are hard to calculate and his conclusions are largely based on the research of a pro-union think tank. During a debate this month, Kasich refuted the assertion, saying that Ohio had not lost any jobs to China. Again, the anti-free-trade rhetoric doesn’t seem to be enough to help Strickland this election year. A Real Clear Politics average of polls puts Kasich ahead by 4.2 points, though that gap might be closing.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA)

Running for: U.S. Senate

Quote: “Before he went to Washington, Congressman Toomey made a fortune on Wall Street and worked for a billionaire in Hong Kong.” 

Strategy: It’s old hat to chastise incumbents for having gone over the dark side in Washington, but it’s a fairly new tactic to hit senatorial wannabes for their ties to Hong Kong, of all places. That’s the line of attack Joe  Sestak is using on his opponent, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, in one of the country’s closest Senate races.

The Washington Post reported that Toomey “did research on capital market formation in southeast Asia” in the early 1990s for a company owned by the Canadian-Chinese billionaire Chan brothers, Gerald and Ronnie, the latter a former managing director of the scandal-ridden energy company Enron. There is no evidence that Toomey was involved with Enron, though the association can’t help but conjure up negative feelings in voters. And, to further cast aspersions on Toomey’s dangerous Sinophilia, the Sestak campaign also cites one of the Chan brothers saying, “Western democracy is a dead end.”

Toomey’s campaign manager countered that by telling the Post, “The Democrats must be getting pretty desperate to dig up what Pat did 20 years ago.”

Lansing Mayor Virgil “Virg” Bernero

Running for: Governor

Quote: “When Snyder was a director and CEO at Gateway, the company eliminated 19,000 American jobs and outsourced work to China. Snyder cashed out $14 million in stocks before selling what was left of Gateway to a Chinese company.” 

Strategy: As the Detroit Free Press puts it: “It’s déjà vu all over again as the issue of China and jobs is playing out as a theme in the governor’s race.” In Michigan, where unemployment is over 13 percent, thanks to massive downturn in manufacturing, China has long been conjured as the very face of evil outsourcing. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero has been accusing his Republican opponent, Rick Snyder, of sending jobs to China while he was an executive at Gateway. An image of Snyder’s smiling mug floating in the Pacific Ocean, with a red arrow pointing from the United States to China (presumably indicating the alleged flow of jobs) is a regular feature on Bernero’s paper fliers and online campaign sites.

But it will take more than attaching Snyder’s name to Chinese outsourcing to help Bernero catch up. A Rasmussen poll last week gave Snyder a 13-point lead over his opponent.

Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias

Running for: U.S. Senate

Quote: “When you hear Congressman Kirk talk about job creation, he’s talking about jobs he created in China.”

Strategy: According to Alexi Giannoulias, among U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk’s alleged sins is the founding of the U.S.-China Working Group, a group that acts as a liaison between Congress, the State Department, academia, and the business community on matters pertaining to U.S.-China relations. And in 2009, Kirk was caught on camera saying that he told Chinese officials that “the budget numbers that the U.S. government had put forward should not be believed.”

Giannoulias’s rallying cry is echoed by organized labor groups in Illinois. A news release from the Chicago Federation of Labor reads: “A founder of the U.S.-China Working Group, Kirk has voted against legislation to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices and against an investigation of China’s currency practices.”

Kirk’s campaign has responded to the charges that the candidate is in Beijing’s pocket by saying that Giannoulias wants “to start a trade war” that could cost Illinois thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in exports. A Fox News poll Sept. 29 shows a neck-and-neck race for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat. Kirk is at 42 percent, while Giannoulias claims 40 percent of likely voters.

 Twitter: @maxstrasser

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