Trump's tariff plan blows up party divisions in critical Pennsylvania special election

  • Both candidates in the tight House special election in Pennsylvania have supported some form of tariff on steel and aluminum.
  • Last week, President Donald Trump announced his plans to put stiff tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports.
  • Some supporters of both major parties in the PA race back the president's tariff plan.
Democrat Conor Lamb, a former U.S. attorney and US Marine Corps veteran running to represent Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, before a speech to an audience at the American Legion Post 902 on January 13, 2018 in Houston, Pennsylvania.
Getty Images
Democrat Conor Lamb, a former U.S. attorney and US Marine Corps veteran running to represent Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, before a speech to an audience at the American Legion Post 902 on January 13, 2018 in Houston, Pennsylvania.

Few policies championed by President Donald Trump have caused more blurring of political party lines than proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The president's trade goals have ruptured partisan divisions southwest of Pittsburgh, where Republicans and Democrats are fighting for blue-collar votes in a tight House special election.

In the race for Pennsylvania's 18th District seat in Trump country, Republican candidate Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb have both signaled support for some form of tariff on metals. The contenders in next Tuesday's election aim to not alienate key constituencies in the district, like workers in the steel and aluminum industries or unions representing the region's laborers.

The reaction to the tariffs in parts of the district shows working-class areas may again react well to anti-trade rhetoric as Republicans and Democrats battle for control of Congress this year. Trump hopes his proposed tariffs can give Saccone an edge with blue-collar voters as the GOP tries to avoid losing in an area the president carried by 20 points in 2016, partly thanks to his pledges to crack down on unfair trade practices and protect American workers.

But as Democrat Lamb has warmed to at least modest protectionist measures, it may not be a deciding factor for voters in the region. Political observers consider the election a key indicator of whether Democrats can win House seats in red pockets of the country and gain a majority in the chamber in November.

President Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the H&K Equipment Company in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania on January 18, 2018.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks during a tour of the H&K Equipment Company in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania on January 18, 2018.

Last week, Trump floated a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. As it stands now, it would target all imports, not just metals coming from certain countries. The president is expected to go into more detail on his plans this week, and the White House signaled that there could be exceptions.

Trump's tariff plan, combined with the departure of free trade-friendly economic advisor Gary Cohn, have roiled financial markets in recent days.

Free trade Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey have opposed the actions, with some lawmakers arguing they could raise costs for consumers or lead to retaliatory measures from other countries, hurting the U.S. economy. GOP Trump backers like Saccone have supported the tariffs. So have vulnerable Democratic senators like Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who face re-election this year in states Trump won in 2016.

Trump's proposal has brought together strange bedfellows in Pennsylvania's 18th District. The traditionally Republican area has a wealthier and more educated populace than the median congressional district and a strong steel and energy industry presence.

Saccone, a 60-year-old GOP state representative, "supports free trade as long as it's fair," his campaign said in a statement. If tariffs are required "to protect steel and aluminum jobs in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Rick would support those measures," the campaign added.

At a recent debate, the Democrat Lamb said "we have to take some action to level the playing field," calling trade measures "long overdue." The 33-year-old former prosecutor added that he backs tariffs that "focus on China more so than our friends" like Canada.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who served in the Obama White House that defended the North American Free Trade Agreement and pushed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, mentioned the need for "tougher" or "fairer" trade laws while campaigning for Lamb with union members outside of Pittsburgh on Tuesday. He did not specify what it would take to make trade laws more fair.

Key supporters back the tariffs

Two polls of the race released this week showed a statistical dead heat between Saccone and Lamb. A Gravis poll released Wednesday found Saccone held a 3-percentage point advantage, while an Emerson poll out Monday showed Lamb with a 3-percentage point edge. Both of those leads fell within the surveys' margins of error.

Prevailing in the close contest means mobilizing key constituencies for both Saccone and Lamb. Saccone rallied with members of the district's energy industry this week, while Lamb spent part of his day Tuesday with union members.

David Podurgiel, a Rick Saccone supporter
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC
David Podurgiel, a Rick Saccone supporter

Supporters of both Saccone and Lamb within those groups who spoke to CNBC largely showed support for steel and aluminum tariffs.

"I love it," said David Podurgiel, a 52-year-old Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, resident and vessel operations manager for coal company Murray Energy's shipping operation.

At a Saccone event Monday at a VFW post in the town of Waynesburg, Podurgiel told CNBC that he feels the tariffs fit with the "America First" polices Trump pledged as a candidate. He noted that Murray's shipping business counts U.S. Steel, a major steel producer based in Pittsburgh, as a customer.

Jim McCaffrey, a senior vice president for coal sales at Consol Energy who backs Saccone, also told CNBC he thinks the tariffs could "revive the American steel industry."

Some similar views on the tariffs emerged at Lamb's event with union members, who hardly support the president's overall platform.

Conor Lamb
Jacob Pramuk | CNBC
Conor Lamb

"Our manufacturing workers in America need a level playing field, and we have to ensure that our markets are not flooded with foreign imports that are subsidized by foreign nations," said Rick Gredja, a 44-year-old Lamb supporter who works in communications for the Service Employees International Union Local 688.

Meanwhile, Rich Luczko, a retiree who worked in nuclear power as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 29, told CNBC that "something had to be done" about the steel industry.

Still, the views of those groups do not necessarily align with the major parties nationally or even throughout Pennsylvania's entire 18th District. Only 39 percent of American voters say they support Trump's tariff plan, while 35 percent say they oppose it, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll out Wednesday. The poll found 65 percent of Republicans said they back the actions, while only 31 percent of independents and 24 percent of Democrats agreed.

Multiple Lamb supporters at a Tuesday night rally at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh's suburbs opposed the tariff plan. Howard Iacone, a retiree from Elizabeth Township, Pennsylvania, worried the tariffs could hurt rather than help the U.S. economy.

"I think it's a shortsighted view," he said.