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Tariffs Could Complicate Key Senate Races

Some Democrats already criticizing GOP opponents over tariffs’ impact

A John Deere tractor sits in a field near Salem, Ind. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A John Deere tractor sits in a field near Salem, Ind. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The potential for a trade war with China is already complicating some key Senate races ahead of the November midterms, especially for Republicans hoping to expand their majority.

President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports sparked retaliatory threats from China. The country vowed to slap tariffs on top U.S. exports that also come from states with some of the most competitive Senate contests.

In rural states, Democrats are already hitting their Republican opponents for not strongly condemning the tariffs that could hurt their agriculture industry. In other states with different sectors that could either benefit from and be hurt by the tariffs, the politics are complicated, particularly for Republicans who’ve backed free-trade policies.

Watch: A Loyalty Contest for Trump in Indiana

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Rural heartburn

Several states are grappling with the potential negative impacts should China follow through with the tariffs on exports, which include grains and seeds — including soybeans — aircraft parts and machinery.

Six of the top ten soybean-producing states have Senate races this year — North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota and Nebraska.

In some races, the potential effects of the tariffs are already complicating matters for Republicans who don’t want to break too much with Trump. The president remains popular in their states and with the party’s base voters. And in some cases, the issue has already become a partisan fight.

GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, said Monday that part of the uproar over tariffs was fueled by Democrats.

“There are people, particularly Democrats, who want to pour fuel on the fire of hysteria,” he told Prairie Public Radio.

Cramer raised concern over what the tariffs would mean for North Dakota’s agriculture industry. But that came after he toned down his initial response on Twitter.

The congressman tweeted last week that he “will always stand up for farmers” which “includes opposition to tariffs” that could harm the state’s agricultural sector. That tweet was deleted and replaced with one that also praised Trump for standing up for China. Cramer stressed that he was in contact with the White House, but he “would like to see the president take a more measured approach as the impulse of position has created unnecessary turmoil for our markets.”

Cramer then tweeted Friday that he was in contact with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and urged him to protect producers from retaliation, saying, “Farmers must know the Admin has their back & I urge them to act swiftly.” 

His tweets drew sharp criticism from North Dakota Democrats who accused him of abandoning the state’s farmers in favor of supporting Trump.

“There’s only one word for the kind of politician who would do such a thing: coward,” said Scott McNeil, the executive director of the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League Party.

Heitkamp stressed that she has consistently been concerned about the effects of tariffs on farmers in her state. She wrote in a letter to Trump that the escalation over trade was “extremely worrisome,” and urged him to “engage with China in a constructive manner.” 

In Missouri, the Senate contenders have also traded barbs over the tariffs, with both Republicans and Democrats casting each other as out of touch with the Show-Me State.

Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley backed the president, breaking with the state’s GOP senator, Roy Blunt, who told reporters in Missouri, “I don’t think we’re headed to the right place on trade policy.”

Hawley recently said Trump was right to focus on China’s unfair trade practices. He elaborated in a statement Monday that Missouri farmers and families were his top concern. He said he was in touch with agricultural leaders in the state, and added that overseas markets should be open to farmers.

Hawley went on to slam Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for “voting to regulate our farmers’ water and their land.”

“Now she is focused on her war against President Trump rather than on helping Missouri’s farms,” he said. “She’s out of touch. She’s all about herself. She can’t be trusted.”

McCaskill’s campaign jumped on the issue as an opportunity to criticize Hawley for not standing up to Trump.

“Hawley’s support for the tariffs tells you everything you need to know about this race: Claire McCaskill will always put Missourians first. Josh Hawley will not,” campaign spokeswoman Meira Bernstein said.

The issue also seeped into the Senate race in Nebraska, which is a much tougher climb for Democratic challenger Jane Raybould, who is running against Republican incumbent Deb Fischer. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican

Fischer said she has reached out to administration officials, like Perdue and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short to discuss the tariffs. She said she would “continue to work with Nebraskans and the administration to reach a positive outcome for our farmers and ranchers who feed the world.”

But Nebraska’s other GOP senator, Ben Sasse, was more blunt, calling the tariffs “nuts” and “the dumbest possible way” to punish China.

The issue prompted a series of tweets from Raybould, who criticized Fischer’s response as “too little too late,” and called on senators to work across the aisle and “pass bipartisan legislation to reassert its authority on trade.”

More complicated

The potential tariffs are playing out in other Senate races, too. But the effects could be more complicated in states like Indiana and Ohio. In these states with both manufacturing and agriculture sectors, the Democratic incumbents have supported Trump’s tariffs. Republicans have been somewhat more cautious, with some balancing records of supporting free-trade policies and backing Trump’s agenda.

In Indiana, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly said in a phone interview Friday that he has always backed tariffs, but he believed they could be more “precise and surgical” to mitigate the effect on farmers.

The three candidates in the GOP primary — Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun — generally backed the president’s move. Neither Messer nor Rokita signed onto a letter with their fellow Indiana GOP lawmakers expressing concerns about the import duties.

“I want to let this work for a while,” Rokita said in an interview, noting that he supports Trump and the tariffs.

Messer said he wants to look out for both manufacturing and agricultural interests in the state.

“But you know, I’ve just learned time and time again to stay out of the weeds over debates over the nuance because the president tends to negotiate to the right place over time,” he said.

Braun said that at the moment concerns over the tariffs were mostly “based upon what could happen not what has happened.”

How this issue will play out in a state like Indiana remains to be seen.

Take Alan Wilhoite, who stood in the front of a restaurant at a meet-and-greet for Braun at Bekah’s Westside Cafe in Lebanon, Indiana, last week. The past president of the Indiana Pork Producers Association kept pulling his smartphone out of his pocket to check soybean prices.

“See what it’s doing today? Tanking,” he said. But he isn’t necessarily opposed to Trump getting tough on China.

Wilhoite said he’s been to China and observed how the Chinese put tariffs on American goods. He wasn’t yet convinced that new tariffs would hurt U.S. exports.

While Senate candidates deal with Trump’s trade policy, Democrats are looking to use the issue to paint Republicans in these key Senate races as disingenuous.

“Just like with their broken promises and attempts to talk out of both sides of their mouths on health care, voters are ready to hold them accountable,” said Ben Ray, senior communications adviser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said China had to be held responsible, but tariffs were “the wrong way to go.”

And was the Colorado Republican concerned the tariff issue could affect Senate races?

“No,” he said as he walked onto the Senate floor Monday evening.

Simone Pathé reported from Indiana. 

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