GOP Congressman Rod Blum faces disenchanted voters at a town hall meeting in May (SCOTT OLSON)
Washington (AFP) – An Iowa Republican jokes that US President Donald Trump’s trade war with China has him thinking of jumping out a window.
But a five hour drive to the south, an Illinois Democrat cheers the local steel mills that Trump’s punishing import tariffs have brought roaring back to life.
Though by no means the top issue on voters’ minds nationwide, Trump’s multi-front trade battles have awkwardly pitted Republicans against their own president in some of the country’s most competitive races.
Polls and analysts suggest the tensions over trade could give Democrats an extra edge in the fight over control of the House of Representatives — even though other divisive issues like health care and immigration may be bigger drivers of voter turnout.
Nationwide surveys since the summer show a majority of Americans oppose the tariffs and fear they will hurt consumers and jobs.
And in narrowly divided House races, analysts say it could be enough of a turn-off to help put some Democratic challengers over the top.
President Trump has slapped tariffs on hundreds of billions of imports from the world’s other major economies, most notably China, inviting retaliation that has targeted sensitive exports like soybeans.
It’s having a big impact on agricultural states like Iowa, which voted for Trump in 2016 but whose economy is now projected to take a hit of $1 to $2 billion within a year and lose 7,000 to 12,300 jobs.
“Based on what we see today, people are seeing more damage than value,” Frederick Boehmke, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said of Trump’s tariffs policy.
About two thirds of Iowa voters think tariffs have hurt the economy, according to polls conducted by the university.
Crucially, 70 percent of Iowa independent voters oppose to the tariffs, giving the state’s Democrats a big advantage.
– Banking on farmers’ ‘patience’ –
Rod Blum, a Republican whose House seat is vulnerable, told The New York Times in August he was not yet ready to jump out a window over trade. “I do have the window open a little bit,” he added.
Republicans’ muted response to the trade war puzzles Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.
“It took them months before they even started to talk about it,” he told AFP. “I don’t understand why they’re not fighting harder to get the president to back off of this.”
Blum has pleaded with voters to hold tight as the president wrangles with Beijing and Brussels.
“I appreciate our farmers’ patience during negotiations and I am confident that everyone will be better off soon,” he told The Gazette, an Iowa newspaper, last month.
Trump has offered billions in federal assistance and announced extended sales of corn-based ethanol to soften the blow. On Friday, he promised “a very good deal” with China.
David Swenson, an Iowa State University economist, said there has been a palpable political shift in the state since the 2016 elections.
– Fighting over independents –
“There’s a sense of shared awareness that what’s going on in DC is not positively contributing to people’s wellbeing out here in Iowa,” he told AFP.
“We have reasonably strong evidence that those people who moved hard to the right have pulled back toward the center.”
Meanwhile, in more deeply conservative southern Illinois, Republican lawmaker Mike Bost has championed Trump’s steel tariffs, which have fired up shuttered Granite City blast furnaces and led to the rehiring of hundreds of laid-off steelworkers.
But he is seen as vulnerable.
The local steelworkers union is backing Bost’s Democratic challenger Brendan Kelly, a local prosecutor who shares many of Trump’s views on trade even though the district also is home to farmers who stand to suffer from lost exports.
“Southern Illinois is in such dire straits economically that it would not take much to harm the day-to-day lives of people,” said Andrew Theising, a political science professor at the University of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
“If we pull one third of the soybean harvest out from under these farmers, that could be enough so that their economic interests outweigh their social convictions.”
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