This post has been updated.
It’s hard to look away from the trainwreck that is the 2016 American presidential race. But on the periphery of the contentious campaign are dozens of other political races—for senators, house representatives, and governors—that also hold weighty implications for the future of the U.S., and by extension, the nations that do business with it.
“It’s not so much the presidential race that matters to U.S.-Canada relations, it’s congressional races,” says Renan Levine, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “The issues that tend to impact Canadians, like changes in how border crossing is managed, lumber disputes, and the Keystone XL Pipeline, those aren’t [typically] presidential decisions; those are congressional decisions that go beyond the White House.”
While there are certainly several tight congressional races as we approach November 8, Levine says it’s not the individual candidates in the Congress that matter, so much as the party that ultimately gains a majority in the chambers.
Right now in Congress, the Republican party controls both chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The latter will likely remain Republican following the election, given that it holds 247 of the 435 seats (all of which are up for election) and the Democrats would need to flip 30 seats to take control.
The Senate, on the other hand, could go either way. Republicans now hold 54 of 100 Senate seats, and 24 of the 34 seats up for election. That means the Democrats—currently holding 44 seats—need to pick up five more to take the lead in the chamber—with a number of close Senate races across the USA, that’s a possibility, though not a likelihood.
Meanwhile, a handful of gubernatorial offices are up for grabs as well. And while state governors don’t exert any official power over federal issues in Congress, they have significant sway over state bills—some of which affect Canada.
All that is to say: there’s more at stake in the 2016 U.S. election than which candidate takes the White House. Here are five other races to watch—the ones with potentially serious implications for Canadian business—as we approach the November 8 vote.
Washington Governor’s Race
For most of the last decade, the Governor of Washington and Premier of B.C. have been meeting every year to discuss border-related issues and nurture the neighbourly relationship. It’s an important ritual given that the border state does $21.5 billion in trade with Canada every year. But when governor Jay Inslee took over from fellow Democrat Christine Gregoire in 2012, he scrapped the tradition. In the last year, however, “he suddenly got the bug for Canada,” says Christopher Sands, senior professor and director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The newfound affinity for Canada is thanks in part to the Bill Gates’ Foundation injecting money into an “innovation corridor” between Seattle and Vancouver. Bill Bryant, the Republican challenging Inslee, is the owner of an export company and the former Seattle Port commissioner. “He’s not doing badly,” Sands says, noting that Inslee is still leading in the polls. “And I don’t think he would necessarily be an enemy of Canada, but losing Inslee would be a bit of a blow. It would set back the momentum between the State and Canada.”
North Carolina Governor’s Race
Canada trades more than $10 billion worth of goods and services with the state, and helps generate nearly 250,000 jobs. There are more than 90 Canadian firms in the Charlotte area and a similar number in Raleigh, and Canadian businesses directly employ more than 13,000 North Carolinians statewide.
Certainly, Canada has a thriving business culture in the southeastern state. But controversy over the so-called “bathroom bill” has spurred several companies to take their business elsewhere, while others have threatened to do the same. House Bill 2 (HB2), which requires transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, has become a major pain point in the election for incumbent Republican governor Pat McCrory, who signed the bill. Some 200 businesses and corporate leaders have since signed a letter condemning McCrory’s support for HB2, and Democrat challenger Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general, plans to repeal the bill if he is elected governor. Still, both candidates are neck and neck in the polls. “If a Republican gets re-elected, that could have real implications,” says Levine. “I think a lot of companies will reconsider their investments [in North Carolina], and may even consider pulling out. That could very much impact Canadian companies that may feel uncomfortable doing business in that state.”
Vermont Governor’s Race
Former Democrat governor Peter Schumlin had grand plans for the state that included new healthcare single payer plans, and a green energy plan that included a hydro corridor connecting Hydro Quebec to other parts of New England. “He was very engaged with Canadians and really cultivated relationships with Quebec,” says Sands. “But his healthcare reform didn’t go very well, it turned out to be unaffordable, and his green energy plans sent energy rates skyrocketing.” For those reasons, Schumlin is resigning, and will likely be replaced by Republican candidate Phil Scott (although Scott’s recent attacks on Planned Parenthood late in the election have made for a close race with Democratic candidate Sue Minter). “It’s not a turn away from Democrats, but a turn away from Schumlin,” says Sands. “It’s tricky for a lot of Canadians who saw him as a partner who’s doing the kinds of things we generally like.”
New York Senate Race
It’s not so much the race, but the candidate poised to win it, that we should be watching. Incumbent Democratic senator Charles Schumer is leading Republican candidate Wendy Long by nearly 40 points, according to some polls. If his fellow Senate candidates fare as well as he’s likely to and take control of the chamber, Schumer will most likely become the Senate majority leader. That would make him one of the most powerful figures in America.
“He’s very smart, he’s very tough, and he pursues his own interests,” says Sands. It’s difficult to say how, exactly, he’ll use that influence on decision relevant to Canada, but it’s worth noting that he’s one of the few Democrats in congress that opposed president Obama’s stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He’s also urged Canada to add more staff at the Buffalo border to stymie long wait times. “It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to keep our crossings open and moving quickly,” Schumer said in a press release. “These long delays disincentive travelers on both sides of the border, which means our shared economies suffer significant loss in tourism and cross-border commerce dollars.”
Ohio Senate Race
Going into this election, incumbent Republican senator Rob Portman, a former U.S. trade representative, was a prime target for Democrats who saw Ohio as an attainable state. But weeks before the election, the Democrats have pulled campaign spending out of Ohio, essentially signalling their defeat. Trump is up in the state, and Portman, who some view as a potential presidential candidate down the road, is looking even stronger. “He’ll be a strong voice for trade agreements,” says Sands. “And if Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, go back to the table and make some changes on TPP, he’ll be a key ally for Canadians in terms of getting intel on how the negotiations are going.”
Correction: This article originally quoted Prof. Christopher Sands without introducing him and his affiliation. We regret the error.
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