By Jonathan Shorman
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer on Friday backed President Trump's efforts to reach better trade agreements with other countries as the United States launched a trade war with China that has alarmed some farmers.
Colyer, and the other Republican candidates for governor, are trying to find the right balance on trade in a deeply agricultural state that also supports Trump. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Josh Svaty contends Trump's trade policies have made farmers more willing to consider supporting a Democrat.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he's giving Trump's approach a chance to work and warned it will fail "if his own country is shooting him in the back" while he's trying to hold firm in negotiations with other countries.
Other Republican candidates were more cautious or critical. Former state senator Jim Barnett said a trade war is highly risky. And Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer said tariffs will be "hugely damaging" to the state's economy.
The United States officially imposed $34 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods on Friday, and China is expected to respond in kind.
China has previously said it will place tariffs on some American agricultural products, such as wheat, soybeans and beef. That's given rise to fear among Kansas agricultural producers that the trade war will harm their bottom lines.
Trump has vowed for years to tackle Chinese trade practices, accusing Beijing of stealing U.S. intellectual property and slamming the $375 billion U.S. trade deficit with the country. Ultimately, he wants China to purchase more American goods.
The Kansas agricultural community has warned of the consequences of a trade war for weeks. In April, the Kansas Farm Bureau said the uncertainty of a trade war drives already low commodity prices lower. On Friday, the Kansas Soybean Association said the focus should be on expanding trade and said soybean farmers had worked for decades to create markets in China and around the world.
Governors are limited in their ability to directly alter federal trade policy. But they can use their bully pulpits to try to sway action in Washington.
Colyer, who has been endorsed by the Kansas Farm Bureau, gave support to Trump while also appearing to acknowledge that a trade dispute could cost Kansas farmers.
"Access to foreign markets is absolutely critical for Kansas crops and livestock. China is a huge market for these products, so any increase in the cost to do business with China will be borne by Kansas farmers and ranchers," Colyer said in a statement, before adding: "I support President Trump's efforts to secure more fair trading agreements."
Colyer said he will work with the Farm Bureau and the state's congressional delegation to fight for "free and fair" trade agreements with China and other countries that protect access to the markets for Kansas agricultural products.
Kobach said that after years of inaction by past administrations, Trump is finally trying to address unfair trade practices in other countries. He noted that he farms soybeans -- one of the crops potentially affected by tariffs -- and that he appreciates that no industry wants to be on the receiving end of retaliatory tariffs.
But he said he's willing to give Trump a chance on trade, adding that Trump's policies should be reassessed in one or two years if they aren't working.
"The chief executive of the United States has got to be able to have a stiff upper lip and not waver in order to get what the country needs out of this negotiation," Kobach said in an interview this week.
"And if we're constantly shooting at him and the country on the other side can see, 'Well, Mr. President, you've got all these governors complaining and you've got your own Congress up in arms about you. You're not going to be able to hold to your position.' So I think we have to back the president up and see what happens."
Selzer said the governor needs to be far more aggressive in work with governors in other agricultural states to make the states' voices heard in trade policy.
"The prospect of tariffs being implemented on ag products, and now their implementation, has and will be hugely damaging to our ag driven economy in Kansas," Selzer said in a statement. "We clearly need a stronger champion for ag in the governor's office."
Barnett called a trade war highly risky. Kansas farmers have already suffered from low commodity prices and increased property taxes because of the "Brownback/Colyer tax disaster," he said in a statement.
"The Kansas economy was just beginning to recover and now will be slammed back down to the ground," Barnett said.
While Republicans are taking different approaches to Trump's trade policy, Democrats are more united in opposition. At a debate Thursday hours before the tariffs went into effect, they promised to lobby the state's congressional delegation on the importance of trade.
Svaty said Kansas agricultural producers are open to listening to Democrats because "they're being kicked so hard by a president that doesn't seem to care or know." He promoted his own agricultural credentials, which include serving as Kansas secretary of agriculture.
A Democratic candidate who can reach farmers has to be "someone who served as secretary of agriculture so that when they go into western Kansas, they say, 'I trust this person and I know that his passion, his concern is real about this,'" Svaty said.
Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said Colyer is letting talk of trade and tariffs go unanswered. "I think we need to hold them accountable for that," she said.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said if tariffs harm the state economy, it could affect tax revenues and threaten the ability of Kansas lawmakers to make good on their promise to increase funding for schools.
He said one of his priorities would be making sure federal legislators are fully aware of the economic impact of tariffs and that "they need to support us, not their own political agendas."
Contributing: the Associated Press
(c)2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)