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Trade Deals Flare-up Republican Primary Race For U.S. House Seat In Central Arkansas

Brock Olree and French Hill (left to right).
Jacob Kauffman

It’s been a quiet contest but U.S. Representative French Hill is facing a Republican primary challenger for the 2nd District seat. His challenger Brock Olree wants to bring trade deals to the forefront of the congressional race in central Arkansas.

“Employment statistics for these seven counties, there are only about 1,500 more people employed now than there were in 2007, so we need faster economic growth,” said Rep. French Hill.

Hill is in his first term in Congress. Before that – among many things – he founded a bank, then sold it. He’s focused on peeling back post-financial collapse regulations like Dodd-Frank, arguing it’ll spur economic growth. That’s bread and butter GOP talk says David Keith, a journalism professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

“The Republican Party and the big banks themselves want less regulation and French Hill is going to be somebody who is going to align with them very closely,” says Keith.

Brock Olree, Hill’s challenger, has more of a populist bend.

“We can’t even have a good honest debate among the people who have different ideas because the wealthy and the special interests are controlling so much of what’s going,” says Olree. “People on the left and on the right end up feeling betrayed by the people they elect to office.”

The Searcy native briefly taught at Harding University and now works for an online Bible study school. Olree says trade deals like NAFTA and the potential Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP, are top priority economic issues.

“I’m not for giving multinational corporations everything they want. I’m for standing up for the United States first. In communist Vietnam the minimum wage is 56 cents an hour. We can’t compete with that on a fair basis unless we have provisions in there that deal with currency manipulation and have the kind of worker protections, and consumer protections, and environmental protections that we have,” says Olree. He also says workers of all nations need the right to unionize to secure better terms of employment.

Representative Hill of course does not say he wants American jobs to be shipped overseas.

“Some of the barriers to bringing jobs back to the country in my view is the differential in tax rates for our big companies. They are moving some of their operations off shore for sales purposes but for other reasons, when they move them off for tax purposes that’s not a good idea,” says Hill. “We need to make sure our tax code is competitive so that people put their manufacturing and their headquarters locations here in the U.S.”

Olree contends Hill’s trade concerns are with corporate backers who advocate for the still un-finalized Trans Pacific Partnership. Hill voted to authorize what’s called trade promotion authority, giving the President expanded negotiating authority, with any deal sent to Congress for approval.

“Every president since FDR has had some form of delegated authority from the Congress. This is how the Congress oversees what our presidents do on trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a proposed trade arrangement that the President has done but it has not gotten full review in Congress. I’m not sure when it will actually be brought up for a vote, it’s being studied now,” says Hill.

Olree thinks trade promotion authority, or TPA, is a fast track to a trade deal that will send jobs to Asia.

“It’s sort of a stand-in for voting for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPA itself limits Congress’s authority. Congress can’t amend the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Congress is limited in the amount of debate. I think that’s giving up too much of Congress’s authority under the Constitution to the president,” said Olree.

But will this divide over trade amount to anything on Arkansas's March 1 primary?

“Hill doesn’t have to put a lot of effort into this,” says David Keith at UCA. “I can’t imagine that he’s going to have any sleepless nights between now and Tuesday.”

Keith says other issues may be of greater importance to Republican primary voters – though Donald Trump has made the issue of outsourcing central to his campaign.

“Trade issues overall will resonate with the Republican Party and it’s a message you’ve certainly seen discussed among the presidential candidates but Olree’s not the person to deliver it,” Keith said.

The 59-year old Hill has raised over $1 million for his campaign. Mr. Olree, age 37, has raised about $20,000.

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