MANKATO, Minn. — Many of the farmers who helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency fear becoming pawns in his escalating trade war with China, which threatens markets for soybeans, corn and other lifeblood crops in the Upper Midwest.
But Jim Hagedorn, a former GOP congressional aide and Treasury official running for an open House seat, says they should keep their faith in Trump.
“He understands just how important it is to these rural areas that we have these markets,” Hagedorn said in an interview at his campaign office. “Do I understand that the president has the prerogative to go out and negotiate? Of course I do. But I trust that in the end, he’s going to do everything possible to make sure that we help everyone in the United States, including our farmers.”
Trump’s aggressive attacks on China over trade are putting Republicans such as Hagedorn in a difficult spot — torn between siding with Trump and acknowledging the economic peril to many of their constituents. The issue presents yet another challenge to the GOP in a tough midterm election year even in the rural areas across the Upper Midwest that swept Trump to victory — and where control of the Senate could be decided.
When China threatened a 25 percent tariff on soybeans, Mike Petefish, who grows the crop over 2,000 acres, feared the worst. Soybeans are a $2 billion business in Minnesota.
“A 40-cent drop in soybeans, like we saw on Wednesday, meant $50,000 of value evaporating out of my bottom line,” said Petefish, the 33-year-old president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. “The last time I talked to our banker, he told me that of all his clients — these are all farmers — only four made money last year. We kind of broke even. But this year was looking tough even before the tariffs.”
In Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, six-term Democratic Rep. Tim Walz is retiring to run for governor, opening up a seat Trump won by 15 points. Hagedorn, 65, is considered the best GOP candidate to turn a blue seat red.
A third of the state’s soybean crop comes from the district. It also is home to Martin County, the top hog-producing county in the state and one that has been dubbed the “Bacon Capital of the USA .” China’s tariffs on pork will hit hard, too.
Trump’s March 1 announcement of new tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum had been popular, especially after the quiet carve-outs for Mexico and Canada. Democrats in Minnesota’s 8th District, where thousands of iron miners live and work, had embraced the tariffs; they’d done the same in Illinois’ 12th District, where U.S. Steel reacted to Trump by reopening a plant.
The second wave of the trade war has complicated the political outlook for Republican candidates in rural races. Last year, after Wisconsin’s 3rd District swung from an 11-point Barack Obama seat to a 5-point Trump seat, the National Republican Congressional Committee added Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) to their targets for 2018.
But the party’s candidate, Steve Toft, raised just $66,015 in 2017, compared with $1,163,935 for Kind. The seat, which borders Minnesota’s 1st District, had been moving away from Republicans even before the tariffs — which Toft did not support.
“That’s not really free markets. I think the president intends to strengthen the steel industry — and we probably need to do that — but it’s probably not going to help the people in this district,” Toft said.
Officially, Trump’s party is giving candidates a pass on the trade war. “Candidates and members will support policies based on what’s best for their districts,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt.
For much of 2017, Republicans sought to portray Democrats as unhinged by the president, obsessed with scandal. The trade war has allowed rural Democrats to pivot, advocating stability against a backdrop of threats and confusion.
In the midst of the latest tariff announcements, Kind held three town hall meetings where farmers from the dairy, corn and soybean industries pleaded for relief.
“It’s going to hurt American farmers, no doubt about it,” said Jarous Valenec, a 43-year old dairy farmer who attended one town hall. “We were already looking at depressed prices for corn and soybeans before this. There’s no sector that’s showing good numbers.”
Joseph Zenz, 52, a cash crop farmer in southwest Wisconsin, said the panic over prices might have been “a knee-jerk reaction” to something negotiations could settle.
“China still needs our product. China still needs soybeans,” Zenz said. “But every year seems to get more challenging. More competition. Prices keep getting higher. Farmland keeps getting more expensive.”
But like many farmers, Valence and Zenz supported Trump for president. Clinton, explained Zenz, had “nothing to offer” people who struggled in the final years of Obama’s presidency.
Weeks into the trade war, Trump’s alternative seemed to be chaos.
“Yeah, China has been cheating,” Kind said in an interview. “Now’s the time to build an international coalition to stand up to them, not to go it alone. That’s just going to invite the kind of retaliation that we saw this week.”
Republicans in agricultural states were sounding the same notes as Kind and openly questioning the administration’s handling of the fallout. Several asked what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue meant last month when he suggested “mitigation” on behalf of farmers if a trade war broke out.
On Wednesday, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), whom the president personally recruited to run for Senate this year, urged Perdue to use every tool “to protect ag producers from effects resulting in potential trade actions against China.”
In Wisconsin, where two Republicans are fighting for the nomination against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), candidate Kevin Nicholson delighted Democrats by telling a local news channel that farmers might have to put up with “risk.”
“We’ve made so many mistakes to get to this point that it’s going to involve some amount of risk to undo it,” Nicholson said. “The president’s objective is clearly a world without tariffs.”
Unlike Republicans, who risk alienating their base when criticizing the president, Democrats have plunged into the fray. In the 1st District, where five Democrats are competing to replace Walz, each candidate quickly condemned the administration for launching a trade war on TV instead of using the low-key and less disruptive tools available in the World Trade Organization.
“There’s such uncertainty in ag in the first place,” said Dan Feehan, an Army veteran who served in the Obama administration and led the field in fundraising. “Negotiating tactics, in my view, are done in the form of a negotiation. When you’re making policy, you start with everyone at the table talking through their concerns. Otherwise, you don’t know what the other side is thinking, and it turns into a very dark situation.”
Joe Sullivan, a green energy advocate running to Feehan’s left, called the trade war “a completely self-inflicted wound.”
Republicans, who had persuaded farmers to abandon the Democrats, said they could win the argument before November. Hagedorn argued that any Democratic victory could restore the policies of the Obama era, including regulations on water use and pollution that many farmers had despised.
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