By Geoff Colvin and Ryan Derousseau
August 11, 2016

Writer Tory Newmyer (@torynewmyer) is filling in for Geoff Colvin this week.

Free trade advocates don’t have a lot to feel encouraged about these days. The two major presidential candidates are jockeying for the same anti-trade position, a reflection of how politically toxic its become to back new international deals. And in that context, though big business groups are leaning hard on Congress to pass the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership by the end of the year, its prospects are dim.

But a flicker of hope emerged from an unlikely place this week. In southeastern Wisconsin on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan demolished a Republican primary challenger who sought to make Ryan’s support for the Obama administration’s trade push a key issue. And on the western side of the state, Democratic Rep. Ron Kind buried a primary challenger from the left who likewise focused his bid on Kind’s TPP support. Both incumbents won by more than 60 points. Back in April, when the state hosted its presidential primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, both TPP foes, collected 83 percent of the Republican vote between them; among Democrats, longtime trade critic Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders carried all but one of the state’s 72 counties against Hillary Clinton.

Kind, chairman of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition in the House, sees validation for trade advocates in his victory. “I’m very happy with the outcome, because I was challenged by a Bernie Sanders-type candidate, who was just all anti-trade, all anti-TPP,” the 9-term incumbent tells Fortune. “I’m here in the upper Midwest, an industrialized state like Wisconsin, and I wasn’t afraid to talk about the importance of this and what it could mean for job creation back home. And people got it and overwhelmingly came out and supported my reelect.”

Kind and Ryan had advantages beyond the strength of their arguments in the trade debate. Both are affable, practiced pols, well-known to their constituents and facing first-time challengers. And each had a major edge in cash, with Kind out-raising his opponent by roughly 60-to-1, and Ryan besting his by 17-to-1. Meanwhile, Ryan isn’t cheerleading for a swift TPP revival: In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio last week, he said the Pacific Rim pact won’t get a vote this year because it doesn’t have the support to pass. But in a brutal year for trade boosters, runaway victories by two key allies show the cause isn’t yet a new third rail.

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