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Tariff fight could hit GOP in key Senate states

Tariff fight could hit GOP in key Senate states
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Democrats see President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE's escalating trade war with China as an opportunity that could help them win several Senate races in states where a trade fight would damage local economies. 

States that rely on agriculture could be hit particularly hard by retaliatory tariffs from China. That could give Democrats in states like North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri and Florida — all of which are represented by Senate Democrats up for reelection this year — a new argument to make against the president and his allies in Congress.

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The administration launched the first wave of tariffs last month on steel and aluminum, but tensions rose this week when the White House announced $50 billion in tariffs on a variety of Chinese electronics and other goods.

China responded with a broad list of U.S. goods that would face $50 billion in tariffs as well — a response that prompted a White House threat to add $100 billion in new tariffs to Chinese goods. 

The Chinese tariffs target a smattering of U.S. goods, including soybeans, cotton, corn, pork, chemicals, plastics, cattle, wheat and tobacco. 

China is one of the biggest markets for American export goods, and a top recipient of American agricultural products like soybeans, corn, grains and pork, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

Soybeans and hogs are major sources of revenue in states like Minnesota, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri. Corn is a major crop in Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana. And Nebraska, Missouri, Wisconsin, Montana, Minnesota and Florida all feature large cattle industries.

All of those states will see Senate races in 2018, with several Democratic incumbents on the ballot in states Trump won in 2016. Republicans are warning that the economic impact of tariffs could be felt hardest in key Senate states if the trade war continues.

“The economic pain that people will feel from tariffs will be a good reminder of how important free trade is to the economy,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist who has served as a top aide to Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio signals opposition to Biden Cabinet picks Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks GOP senator congratulates Biden, says Trump should accept results MORE (R-Fla.). 

“The people most at risk are the people in disproportionately red states who voted for Trump,” he said, adding that the “coincidence of the cycle” is that those states are also home to Democratic incumbents targeted by the GOP.

Democrats are on defense in Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Montana, Florida and North Dakota, where Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats must turn around Utah police arrest man driving 130 mph claiming he was going to kill former Missouri senator McCaskill congratulates Hawley on birth of daughter MORE (Mo.), Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Next Congress expected to have record diversity Infrastructure, energy investments urgently needed to create U.S. jobs MORE (Wis.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (Ind.), Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Senate Democrats press VA for vaccine distribution plan President is wild card as shutdown fears grow MORE (Mont.), Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots The Hill's Morning Report - Biden inches closer to victory Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 MORE (Fla.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampMajor unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' in new administration MORE (N.D.) are all running in states won by Trump. 

Minnesota Democratic Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff YouTube temporarily suspends OANN account after spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE and Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls Smith wins reelection in Minnesota Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense MORE are running for reelection too, although their seats are considered more secure for Democrats after Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years The Hill's 12:30 Report - Third vaccine candidate with 90% efficacy Biden won — so why did Trump's popularity hit its highest point ever? MORE won Minnesota in 2016. And Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerTech CEOs clash with lawmakers in contentious hearing Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska GOP senators pan debate: 'S---show,' 'awful,' 'embarrassment' MORE is also not seen as in serious danger in her red state.

Many of the top soybean-producing states depend on exports to China. North Dakota, for example, sends two-thirds of its soybean production to China. Tariffs on those imports could raise prices, prompting Chinese buyers to choose soybeans from other markets.

“If you’re a soybean farmer, you’ve got to be nervous about this,” said Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. 

The Chinese trade war also puts a strain on Montana, a top producer of wheat. From 2016 to 2017, China was the third-largest purchaser of hard red spring wheat. According to the Montana Grain Growers Association, Montana sold 7 million metric tons of that crop to China last year.

Trade and business associations in these rural states are sounding the alarm, warning that tariffs imposed by China could hurt key industries and have a negative impact on state economies.

That puts Republicans running for Senate in a tight spot as they grapple with whether to stick with Trump on tariffs or break with the president in favor of their respective states’ industries. 

“Owning Trump’s position means owning any potential trade war,” a Democratic strategist working on a top Midwestern Senate race told The Hill

That tension is already apparent in the North Dakota Senate race, where Heitkamp is running against Republican Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday MORE.

Cramer addressed the tariffs in a tweet on Wednesday, calling for a “more measured approach” and criticizing the “impulse” that “created unnecessary turmoil.”

But Democrats pounced on that statement, pointing to the text of an earlier, later deleted tweet, where Cramer took a stronger tone by declaring his “opposition to tariffs that have the potential to harm North Dakota’s [agricultural market].”

Democrats running in competitive House races are starting to put pressure on vulnerable Republicans there, too. 

Former Rep. Brad AshfordJohn (Brad) Bradley AshfordNebraska district could prove pivotal for Biden in November The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - First lady casts Trump as fighter for the 'forgotten' House Democrats target Midwestern GOP seats MORE (D-Neb.), who’s mounting a comeback for his Omaha-based seat, seized on the clash to link his opponent — GOP Rep. Don Bacon — to Trump’s trade war. In a tweet on Wednesday, he called on the agriculture sector to “express your opposition to Trump’s trade wars” by voting against Bacon.

Bacon answered on Friday with a statement that asked the White House to “find a solution to this tariff war with China” that both protects American intellectual property from China — a stated goal of Trump’s tariffs — while also allowing “Nebraska’s export agriculture economy of $6.4 billion to remain competitive and flourish.”

The White House has sought to downplay any political concerns related to the tariffs, pointing to the growing economy.

Top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Friday that the administration’s “political success will rise and fall with the economy.”

“The economy is doing rather well now and I expect it to do even better, so I don’t necessarily with [agree] all the pundits about how bad the midterms are going to be for the GOP,” he said. 

“I’m not a tariff guy, but sometimes you need to use tariffs to bring people to their senses.”

Industry leaders are trying to convince the White House to scale back those tariffs, and Kudlow admitted that it’s “possible” Trump is using the tariff proposal as a negotiating tactic. Those leaders are encouraged by recent exemptions granted from steel tariffs.  

But Conant expressed the concerns of many Republicans who worry the market instability and potential adverse effects of the tariffs could muddle the GOP’s economic message in the fall. Before the tariff fight, Republicans had hoped that an economic boom following the GOP tax cuts would help blunt Democratic enthusiasm.

“If trade wars were good for the economy, we’d have them all the time,” he said.

“Democrats want the midterms to be about Trump’s behavior. Republicans want them to be about the economy and economic policies. If the economy goes south, Republicans have nothing to run on.”

Vicki Needham and Sylvan Lane contributed.