GOP anxious with Trump on trade

GOP anxious with Trump on trade
© Getty Images

Republican senators from farm states are stepping up pressure on President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Five takeaways from testy Heller-Rosen debate in Nevada Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation MORE ahead of a key round of trade negotiations scheduled later this month.

These GOP lawmakers are growing increasingly worried that a break with trading partners could reverberate in the 2018 midterm elections. 

A group of Republican senators, mainly from agriculture-dependent states, met with Trump and Vice President Pence last week to remind them to be careful of the impact of trade talks on agriculture exports.

Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsEvangelical leader: Not worth risking ties with Saudi Arabia over missing journalist GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Congress allows farm bill to lapse before reauthorization deadline MORE (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, brought along Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerElection Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue Democrats must end mob rule GOP senators praise Haley as 'powerful' and 'unafraid' MORE (R-Colo.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to help make the case that trade could make a difference in the battle for the Senate. 


GOP strategists say control of the Senate next year will hinge on races in states where agricultural exports are a big deal, such as Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

Seventy-three percent of agricultural exports from North Dakota depended on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 2016, according to the Farm Bureau. The percentages for agriculture exports from Missouri, Michigan and Wisconsin were 69, 63 and 52 percent, respectively. 

“The intersection of agriculture with trade and foreign policy may not sound sexy, but it produces jobs and votes,” said Kevin Kellems, a Republican operative who used to work for former Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar (R) and a variety of other GOP heavyweights. 

“Access to foreign markets is the bread and butter of export-dependent middle America. With such a narrow margin in the Senate, it’s entirely possible that free and fair trade policy can tip the balance of power,” he added. 

Forty-one percent of agriculture exports from Indiana, where Republicans are trying to knock off Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyConservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Donnelly parodies 'Veep' in new campaign ad Election Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B MORE (D), depend on NAFTA. 

Senior Republican lawmakers have grown frustrated this year over what they see as a lack of certainty about the future of NAFTA and the lack of progress negotiating bilateral trade deals to replace the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump pulled out of a year ago. 

They hope their efforts, in addition to Trump’s pledge Monday to focus on rural prosperity, will give them some momentum heading into a key round of talks later this month. 

“The president really listened to our concerns. I delivered the message that farmers and ranchers need to grow export markets and maintain our status as a reliable supplier, more especially with Canada and Mexico in NAFTA renegotiations,” Roberts said in a statement after meeting with Trump and Pence. 

Trump has vowed to renegotiate the 23-year-old deal, which has been seen as generally favorable for agriculture exports, although critics say it has cost domestic manufacturing jobs. 

Roberts continued to make his argument to the president on Monday, flying to Nashville, Tenn., to hear Trump address the American Farm Bureau Federation. 

“This is an ongoing dialogue about how we can strengthen our trade agreements and make sure they work well across the board,” said Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenTrump poised to sign bipartisan water infrastructure bill Overnight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate 74 protesters charged at Capitol in protest of Kavanaugh MORE (R-N.D.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations agriculture subcommittee. “My end of it is particularly the ag piece.” 

The United States, Mexico and Canada are scheduled to hold a pivotal round of trade talks in Montreal from Jan. 23-28, shortly before Trump’s first State of the Union address, where he will be expected to explain his vision for renegotiating trade deals. 

“This round is a pivot point where either Mexico and Canada will begin to engage on what are some transformational U.S. proposals with respect to countering the outsourcing of American jobs, or the probability increases dramatically that there could be notice to withdraw from NAFTA or some other major shake-up of the negotiations,” said Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. 

She noted that Canada has largely ignored demands by the Trump administration to reform NAFTA and that Mexico has only recently begun looking seriously at some of the U.S. proposals. 

If progress continues to stall, the Trump administration may try to shake things up in Montreal by threatening a notice to withdraw from the landmark trade agreement, which the president has called “the worst trade deal ever made.” 

Republican lawmakers and strategists said the resulting loss of market share could hurt farmers in pivotal Senate battleground states.

“While the rest of the economy is doing quite well, the farm sector is one that’s been weak since 2013,” said Bill Hoagland, a longtime senior Senate Republican staffer who owns a family farm in Indiana and formerly worked for the Department of Agriculture. 

Hoagland said any “signals of any kind of restrictions or protectionism on the agriculture sector, wherever that might be, whether in the Asia bloc or the North America bloc, would be a major problem for Republicans in the Midwest and the Farm Belt area.”

Already Democrats are trying to score points in swing states with big agricultural sectors by arguing that Trump’s policies are bad for farmers.

The Democratic National Committee circulated a memo Monday afternoon arguing that Trump’s policies have hurt rural areas and that he has not made agriculture much of a priority.