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In the farm belt and manufacturing hubs, tariffs and trade turn into election issues

October 09,2018 14:22

WASHINGTON – Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer's campaign ad opens with the story of her sister and brother-in-law, corn and soybean farmers who the candidate explains “just want to sell their crops and make a living.” “Tariffs should be fair,” Finkenauer ...and more »



Michael Collins USA TODAY
Published 6:00 AM EDT Oct 9, 2018

WASHINGTON – Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer’s campaign ad opens with the story of her sister and brother-in-law, corn and soybean farmers who the candidate explains “just want to sell their crops and make a living.”
“Tariffs should be fair,” Finkenauer declares, “but they shouldn’t make things harder.”
To drive home her point, Finkenauer closes the 30-second spot with a three-word postscript. “This,” she says pointedly, “is personal.”
In the nation’s farm belt and manufacturing hubs, where Americans are personally feeling the fallout from President Donald Trump’s duties on imported aluminum, steel and other goods, tariffs and trade have emerged as pivotal issues in the Nov. 6 midterm elections.
But in the rest of the country, where Americans have been largely isolated from the impact of the president’s actions, trade issues are barely registering with voters in this fall’s political campaigns, even as polls show voter turnout is expected to be high.
“It’s not a huge issue dominating the election,” said Leah Askarinam, a reporter and analyst for Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks congressional and gubernatorial campaigns across the country.
Just 18 percent of voters listed trade wars and 17 percent cited tariffs as among the issues that concern them the most in a national survey conducted in late August and early September. Health care, education and infrastructure were the top issues on the minds of voters surveyed by the Alliance for American Manufacturing.
Even in places like Iowa, the epicenter of the farm belt, tariffs and trade are not the dominant issues on voters’ minds. Iowans listed health care and education as the most important issues for the next governor to address in a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released last month.
In Wisconsin, which has both a sizeable agriculture and manufacturing base, 31 percent of voters think increased tariffs on steel and aluminum imports will improve the economy, while 52 percent said they would hurt, according to a Marquette Law School poll in September.
Tariffs may not be the most pressing concerns for most voters. But they are an issue, with Republicans who have supported Trump’s trade policies taking fire from their political opponents and from voters who are worried about the tariffs’ impact on their livelihoods.
In Iowa, Finkenauer, a Democratic state representative who is running for Congress, is using the issue to hammer Republican incumbent Rod Blum, who represents the northeastern part of the state. Farmers are paying the price for Trump’s tariffs, Finkenauer argues in a campaign ad, “and Rod Blum is letting it happen.”
Blum, who is considered one of the most vulnerable House incumbents this election cycle, is a Trump supporter who appeared alongside the president at a roundtable discussion in Iowa in July. Blum thanked Trump for showing “political courage” in negotiating trade deals. Trump introduced Blum at the event but forgot his name. He referred to the congressman as “Matt Blum.”
Trade also has been an issue in the Iowa’s governor’s race, with the Democratic challenger, Fred Hubbell, accusing Republican incumbent Kim Reynolds of defending Trump — and not farmers. Hubbell has a slight lead in the race. He’s ahead by 3.5 percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics, a website that averages polling data.
Even the Chinese have tried to capitalize on the politics of trade.
Late last month, a Chinese government-run media company placed a four-page supplement in the Sunday Des Moines Register plugging the benefits of U.S.-China trade. Experts speculated the insert was intended to undermine farm-country support for Trump's escalating trade war – and Trump agreed, accusing the Chinese of meddling in the upcoming midterm elections.
In North Dakota, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a vulnerable Democrat, has bludgeoned Republican challenger Kevin Cramer for supporting Trump’s trade policies.
A campaign ad that Heitkamp released last month features former Democratic state Rep. Charles Linderman, a farmer, standing in a soybean field and talking about the toll that Trump’s tariffs have taken on his family. The spot ends with Linderman looking into the camera and speaking directly to Cramer. “You don’t even care,” he says.
Even so, the issue doesn’t appear to be helping Heitkamp, who is down by nearly nine points in the Real Clear Politics polling average.
“Cramer isn’t being hurt by this,” said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate and gubernatorial races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In Tennessee’s closely watched Senate race, tariffs are the focus of a campaign ad by Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former governor who is locked in a hard-fought battle with GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn for the seat being vacated by Republican Bob Corker.
Standing in front of stacks of wooden whiskey barrels, Bredesen argues that tariffs are hurting the state’s auto industry, farmers and “even Tennessee exports like Jack Daniel’s.”
Blackburn says she opposes tariffs and has told the White House so, but that it’s time someone stood up to other countries like China, which she says have been waging trade wars against the U.S. for years.
Challengers also have used tariffs to attack Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican who is in the toughest election fight of her career against Democrat Lisa Brown, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is running for a third term but trailing Democrat Tony Evers.
Both McMorris Rodgers and Walker have spoken out against across-the-board tariffs, but their opponents say the two incumbents have done little to stop them.
Even in states where trade is getting some attention from candidates, it’s hard to know whether it will be a potent enough issue to motivate voters, said Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa.
“I’m pretty skeptical at this point that anything will actually persuade a voter to vote for the opposite party,” Larimer said. “I think it’s more of a mobilization issue. It could mobilize Democrats who might not normally turn out in the midterms to turn out.”
Neither political party wants to make the election a referendum on tariffs, Askarinam said.
“That’s not what this election is about for the Democrats or the Republicans,” she said. “It’s more about electing a check on the president or electing somebody who represents you better than the incumbent, somebody who cares about what’s happening to your pocketbook in terms of health-care premiums. That’s the main message. Tariffs might help them deliver that message, but tariffs are not the actual message.”
But could tariffs and trade be the factors that actually tip the election in a really close contest?
“In these tight races,” Askarinam said, “everything matters.”
More: President Trump announces 'truly historic' trade deal to replace NAFTA
More: U.S. slaps tariffs on another $200 billion in Chinese goods as trade tensions escalate
More: Tariffs on imported cars, parts could harm U.S. economy and auto industry, experts warn
Published 6:00 AM EDT Oct 9, 2018

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