“Family farmers in our district saw reliable markets disrupted by impulsive and unpredictable trade decisions,” said Democrat Angie Craig, who unseated Rep. Jason Lewis (R). “I heard a lot of the same things: They want a representative who will listen to the concerns they have about instability stemming from the trade war.”
Democratic candidates across the country tried to leverage angst about Trump’s trade policies in their campaign pitches to voters. In Senate races, most Democrats who tried running on those sentiments lost. But in House races, such candidates fared much better and may have even helped swing control of the chamber to Democrats, underscoring the mixed political ramifications of one of the administration’s key economic policies.
“It’s very clear, based on how they lost seats in the Upper Midwest, that declining agricultural markets likely led to the overturning of the GOP majority in the House,” said Joe Brusuelas, an economist with RSM, an international accounting firm. “It’s hard to imagine that these seats would have flipped anyway.”
In March, Trump slapped 25 percent tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to the United States, followed by two separate rounds of tariffs — one on $50 billion in products and another on $200 billion in products — on China.
China, Mexico and other foreign governments have retaliated by imposing their own tariffs on U.S. exports, in many instances in areas where they might hurt the president’s domestic political fortunes.
They targeted Midwestern farms that export to Chinese markets, Harley-Davidson motorcycles manufactured in the Rust Belt, and even bourbon produced in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, among other businesses in Republican-controlled states.
In several key races, particularly at the statewide level, those efforts failed to substantially hurt the president or his party. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who tried aligning himself with Trump on immigration and other issues, said the administration’s trade policy had “gone too far” and was hurting businesses in Indiana. He lost by 8 points.
Other Senate Democrats met similar fates. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who repeatedly decried the trade war’s impact on her state’s many soybean farmers, lost by double digits. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) expressed alarm that the White House tariffs were on the verge of putting a nail manufacturer out of business but was handily defeated by state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R). Moreover, an analysis by the New York Times found that Republicans maintained control of 17 of the 25 districts most reliant on agricultural jobs.
“This was a very rational effort by foreign governments to penalize areas of the country that had supported Trump, and it simply didn’t work,” said Jock O’Connell, economist with Beacon Economics. “These areas, by and large, stuck with the president and their Republican members of Congress.”
But in other races, several analysts, candidates and campaign aides said, frustrations over the trade war may have helped push Democratic candidates over the top. They pointed in particular to races along the Upper Mississippi Valley, which encompasses northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.
Two of Democrats’ House pickups came in Iowa, where Abby Finkenauer beat incumbent Rep. Rod Blum (R) and Cindy Axne beat incumbent Rep. David Young (R). J.D. Scholten, a Democrat running against Rep. Steve King (R), lost but came closer than Democrats had in the last several cycles against King, a 15-year incumbent.
Farmers in Iowa districts who have voted Republican and supported Trump before were this year “discouraged and not as motivated to go out and vote” because of the tariffs, said Aaron H. Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union.
“In Iowa, critics of the administration’s trade policy did really well in this election,” Lehman said. “Some of the Republicans were very critical of the president’s stance, but they had to be very delicate in their criticisms — ultimately that showed up on Election Day as well.”
In northern Illinois, Democrat Lauren Underwood, 32, criticized the impact of Trump’s trade war on local soybean farmers and pulled off a surprise upset over an incumbent Republican. In Minnesota, Democrat Dean Phillips defeated GOP incumbent Erik Paulsen in the 3rd District, while the Democrat Craig beat Lewis in the 2nd District after losing to him in 2016.
“I think it helped her immensely with her agriculture support,” Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, said of Craig’s victory over Lewis. “I heard from members, ‘I like that she understands and supports trade.’ ”
Soybeans are a major U.S. export, particularly to China. The tariffs have turned Chinese demand “anemic,” according to an analysis by the Agriculture Department. U.S. soybean exports to China fell from more than 2.5 million tons in September 2017 to 67,000 tons in September 2018, it found.
About 61 percent of voters said in a Gallup poll last week that U.S. trade and tariff policies were “extremely/very important” to their vote, although that came well below health care, the economy, immigration and other issues. Exit polling consistently found health care, rather than trade, to be the most important issue to voters.
There were also some areas where Trump’s tariffs may have helped rather than hurt his party’s candidates. Minnesota’s Iron Range, in the northern part of the state, is in the midst of an “economic revival,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported this summer, in part because Trump’s tariffs have pushed up the cost of domestic steel and driven up profits. That revival played a large role in helping Republican Pete Stauber win a seat that Democrats had held since 2011, according to Stauber staffers.
“The president’s agenda definitely resonated in this mining-heavy district,” said Caroline Tarwid, Stauber’s press secretary.
Farmers who are “die-hard” Trump supporters were largely unmoved by appeals to vote for Democrats because of the trade issue, said Anne Schwagerl, a 33-year-old soybean farmer in Minnesota. In general, she said, Trump voters were persuaded by the president’s pitch that the trade war was a needed temporary measure to create better trade deals.
But that argument was less persuasive to those who already had their doubts about Trump.
“For some moderates who soon have to pay bankers their operating loan, it can be hard to see beyond the next six to eight months,” Schwagerl said. “For anyone who is a moderate, it was hard to buy the ‘short-term pain for long-term gain’ argument.”