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How Trump’s Trade Policies Could Impact Governors’ Races

There are early, but scattered, signs that Democrats will use new tariffs as a wedge issue.

Fred Hubbell, the Democratic candidate for Iowa governor, has challenged President Trump's tariffs as harmful to the state's agriculture exports.
(AP/Charlie Neibergall)
President Trump is pursuing a high-stakes strategy of raising tariffs in an effort to cut America’s trade deficits. The administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, for instance, prompted China, the European Union, Canada and Mexico to retaliate with tariffs of their own on agricultural exports.

The escalating battle has already hurt farmers. As a result, the Trump administration announced last month that it will make an estimated $12 billion in government assistance available to growers.

While the economic impact of his trade policy plays out, could there also be a political impact? Could a trade war influence the 36 governors’ races in November?

So far, there are only scattered signs that Democratic candidates are using trade as a wedge issue, or that Republican candidates are aggressively distancing themselves from Trump to side with their constituents’ economic interests.

But if Trump’s trade approach causes further pain for export-dependent farmers, or if manufacturers reliant on newly expensive steel and aluminum begin to suffer, this could -- in theory at least -- provide a political windfall for Democrats already benefiting from favorable electoral winds.

Trade offers a rare opportunity for Democrats to make a play for two categories of voters that have swung heavily toward Republicans in recent elections: rural Americans and blue-collar workers.

As it happens, the lineup of competitive gubernatorial contests on tap for this fall presents unique risks for Republicans if trade morphs into a winning issue for Democrats.

We found six states in the midsection of the country that currently rank as competitive in our gubernatorial ratings and that have an economy more reliant on agriculture and manufacturing than the country as a whole.

Half of these gubernatorial seats are open, and all but one are currently held by Republicans.

Iowa R No 4.7 18 22.7
Mich. R Yes 0.6 19.7 20.3
Wis. R No 1.6 18.5 20.1
Kansas R No 3.2 16.4 19.6
Ohio R Yes 0.5 16.6 17.1
Minn. D Yes 1.7 14.6 16.3
Given its ranking at the top of this list, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Democrats in Iowa are already making trade an issue.

The state Democratic Party has made a point of noting a decline in farmland prices, and Fred Hubbell, the Democrat challenging Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, narrated an ad that zeroes in on the risks to Iowa’s agricultural exports from Trump’s trade policies: “A huge chunk of our economy is going to get hit with this trade war,” he says in the ad. “It’s going to make it harder for us to export pork, or ethanol, or soybeans. It’s going to magnify those risks for our farm economy, big time. Gov. Reynolds [is] not going to take on the Washington establishment to protect Iowa farmers. We need to get the message out, and Iowans need the governor standing up for them.”

“The issue is still new, but I expect Democrats and Hubbell to discuss the issue constantly in the coming months,” says Christopher Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa political scientist. They’re going to make the case that Reynolds “is positioning herself in direct line with the Trump administration on all policies, including tariffs.”

Reynolds, meanwhile, hasn’t been passive on the issue, saying she would lobby the White House and cabinet members with her concerns that tariffs threaten the "fragile” agricultural economy. "Agriculture is always the first casualty when we’re talking about trade negotiations,” she told the Des Moines Register. “Our farmers are producers, and they just want access to markets."

But even if Democrats aren’t able to get dyed-in-the-wool Republicans to switch sides on Election Day, Larimer says, they may at least be able to “mobilize rural, moderate-leaning Democrats who typically don't vote in a midterm.”

Another state where tariffs could have an impact in a gubernatorial race is Kansas. Republicans are defending the seat against credible Democratic challengers, though neither party’s nominees have been chosen yet.

“The trade issue has not been big yet, but I think it could be in the general election, especially if Kris Kobach is the GOP nominee,” says Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. “Kobach has doubled and tripled down on Trump in the last few weeks, running a TV ad where he is standing in front of a ‘Trump Train’ truck and where he is endorsed by Donald Trump, Jr.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic challengers “have all mentioned the issue in their campaign speeches, but it has not become a central piece of their campaigns,” Beatty says. “It surely will come September, when the Democratic nominee emerges.”

A late primary date has also limited the amount of sparring over trade in Minnesota, but the issue “has the potential to put the GOP on the defensive with rural voters,” says Carleton College political scientist Steve Schier. “The media have started to give attention to farmers' complaints about the tariff policy, so expect Democrats to eventually seize on that.”

That said, there’s a potential for several factors to dampen the Democrats’ ability to capitalize on trade in some of these states.

In Minnesota, for instance, the northern part of the state has a significant mining economy and is historically blue-collar and Democratic. Many voters in the region appreciate Trump’s efforts to bolster resource-extraction industries and worry that the Twin Cities-based Democratic establishment will be likelier to line up alongside environmentalists with little tolerance for heavy industry.

Democrats face similar challenges in Ohio.

On the positive side for Democrats, “the trade and tariff issue are relevant to many Ohioans who work in the agricultural industry, particularly soybean farmers,” says Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist in Ohio. “It’s also been a topic of concern for other industries, such as those working with metal. Neither candidate has addressed this in a major way, but I would expect [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Richard Cordray to use them in narrowly targeted digital and mail universes.”

On the other hand, Weaver says, Democrats will likely face difficulties turning even constituencies directly hurt by the tariffs away from Trump, given the party’s close identification with coastal liberals.

Another challenge for Cordray to make an anti-Trump pitch on trade: He’ll be on the same ballot as Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has been favorable toward Trump’s trade approach. That has made Brown “very popular” in the state and harder to run away from, says Bill Binning, a former Republican official in the state.

Furthermore, Democrats will struggle to leverage the trade issue in states that are solidly red, even those with an above-average reliance on agriculture and manufacturing. There are seven such states with gubernatorial races this fall:

Ala. R No 1.2 17.4 18.6
Ark. R No 2.4 15.2 17.6
S.C. R No 0.5 17.1 17.6
Idaho R Yes 5.1 12.3 17.4
Neb. R No 6.3 11 17.3
S.D. R Yes 7.1 10 17.1
Tenn. R Yes 0.4 16.4 16.8
In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has tried to steer a middle course that takes farmers’ concerns seriously. “I continue to support the president," Hutchinson told CNBC. “But we feel it’s appropriate to say there is a point that you should not squeeze toldus further.”

Hal Bass, an Ouachita Baptist University political scientist, said that in Arkansas, “the issue has been raised by critical Democrats and by Republicans seeking to balance support for the president with concern about the impact of the tariff policy on agricultural producers. At this point, I don’t see it as a game changer. Republicans can lose some support at the margins and still win comfortable majorities.”

And in Nebraska, Pete Ricketts, the Republican governor, has also tried to get in front of the issue by preemptively urging Trump to pursue free-trade policies, says former U.S. Rep. Hal Daub, a Republican. “Most producers and growers recognize the need for more open markets and are giving the president leeway to try and level the playing field,” he says. “They recognize the likelihood of some short-term pain but think there will be longer-term gains.”

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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