US-China trade war: are Illinois’ soybean farmers losing faith in Donald Trump?

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US-China trade war: are Illinois’ soybean farmers losing faith in Donald Trump?

As the results came trickling in for one of the most consequential midterm elections in recent US history, the conclusion of one particular battleground race in central Illinois offered a barometer of American farmers’ faith in a trade war with China that could cost them billions of dollars in exports.

As voter rejection of Republicans gathered steam in heavily trade-dependent states like Washington, the battle for Illinois’ 13th congressional district – a traditionally conservative stronghold that Republican representative Rodney Davis won by almost 20 percentage points in 2016 – came down to the wire on Tuesday night, in an election that saw the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives.

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In Tuesday’s polls, widely regarded as a referendum on the performance of US President Donald Trump, Davis’ Democrat challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who had vowed to lobby for de-escalation of the trade war, came up just short, losing the vote by a mere 1.4 percentage points.

The race was so close that broadcaster CNN called the result prematurely in favour of Londrigan, a misfire that was met with confusion and derision on Twitter.

In a contest that, like many others across the country, also focused on health care, job creation and taxes, the effects of an expanding conflict with China, which has traditionally bought most of Illinois’ exported soybeans, have loomed large.

According to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Census of Agriculture of 2012, the most recent data available, the 13th congressional district ranks fourth out of Illinois’ 18 districts in terms of soybean production.

Over the course of their respective campaigns, Davis and Londrigan had framed farmers’ positions on the escalating trade war in differing ways.

“The majority of farmers in central Illinois have asked that I be patient with the president in his approach to reversing the unfair trade practices utilised by China,” Davis told regional newspaper The News-Gazette in October.

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Londrigan, on the other hand, argued that farmers were panicking about the export vacuum that China had left after the escalation of the trade war through tariffs. She said at the contenders’ final debate on October 22 that farmers “don’t know where their markets are going to come from, and the difference between what the EU can do and what China does is night and day”.

“I want to go to Washington to represent our farmers, to stand up to this administration or whoever is there and be a real voice for the farmers in our district,” she said.

With a yield of more than 610 million bushels last year, Illinois is the top soybean-producing state in the US, according to figures from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

As of April, before the salvo of import tariffs began, about 25 per cent of the state’s soybean crop was bought by China, according to the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA), a lobbying group that represents the interests of the state’s more than 43,000 producers.

The US Chamber of Commerce estimates that China buys about US$1.3 billion worth of Illinois soybeans a year.

Citing the association’s apolitical stance, an ISA spokeswoman declined to comment on the impact the trade war was likely to have had on soybean growers’ voting decisions, but the group has previously spoken out against the Trump administration’s use of tariffs.

“We are disappointed that agriculture continues to be placed in the middle of the tariff debate with China,” ISA chairwoman Lynn Rohrscheib said in early July, soon after China responded to US tariffs with duties of its own on a range of agricultural goods, including soybeans. “We urge the Trump administration and China to rescind these tariffs that leave our farmers footing the bill.”

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Other races in the state reflected a similar narrowing of Republicans’ margin of control.

In another key race in Illinois’ 12th congressional district, the state’s sixth-largest producer of soybeans, incumbent Republican Mike Bost fended off Brendan Kelly by about 6.6 percentage points, after a 14.6-point margin of victory in 2016.

In the state’s 15th district, Illinois’ top producing soybean district, incumbent Republican representative John Shimkus held off his challenger Kevin Gaither with 72 per cent of the vote. In 2014 Shimkus won 74.9 per cent of the vote, and in 2016 ran unopposed.

Signs of voter frustration were visible in other parts of the country considered to be particularly vulnerable to fallout from the trade war.

In Washington, the most trade-dependent state in the country, around US$594 million of the state’s annual agricultural exports to China are now targeted by Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs, according to analysis based on last year’s export figures carried out by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

In congressional races across the northwestern state, Democrats were overwhelmingly on track to either extend their margins of victory over Republican challengers or, in the case of three congressional districts expected to stay red, significantly narrow the margins of loss.

In one of those districts, the largely rural 4th congressional district, Democrats were able to field a challenger for the first time since 2012, the last two elections being so overwhelmingly dominated by Republicans that no Democrat made it past the primaries.

In another telling race – and one the most expensive House races in the country – Democrat Kim Schrier looks all but set to take Washington’s 8th congressional district from Republican control for the first time in the district’s 35-year history.

Home to both hi-tech manufacturers – which include Boeing facilities – in the district’s west and fruit orchard-rich country to the east, the district encompasses a broad swath of industries that could be particularly vulnerable to sustaining collateral damage resulting from Trump’s trade policies.

That theme featured prominently on the campaign trail of Schrier, who accused Republicans in Congress of not holding the administration to account on its policies that could endanger the livelihoods of Washington’s agricultural workers.

“China’s tariffs will be devastating for our farmers in eastern [Washington],” she said on Twitter in April after Beijing’s announcement of retaliatory tariffs on produce including meat and fruit. Addressing her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, she continued: “These tariffs are a direct response to the policies of a president you helped elect. Don’t you have anything to say?”

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There were issues other than agriculture at play in all races, including those in Illinois and Washington. In light of that, some observers cautioned against assigning too much weight to the trade war as an election game changer.

“As a general point we may find that the impact of tariffs – in the form of lower US exports particularly – occurred too close to the elections to make a difference to people’s baseline voting behaviors”, said Chris Rogers, a research analyst at global trade data firm Panjiva. “That effect may become more pronounced heading to 2020 of course.”

Allen Carlson, an associate professor in Cornell’s government department, said that the fact rural America still largely favoured Republican candidates suggested that voters were “clearly deeply in the thrall of Donald J. Trump’s xenophobic brand of populism”, despite the fact “they are arguably suffering the most as a result of the President’s trade war with China”.

Nonetheless, modest signs of a Democratic shift in districts with close trade ties to China could serve as a reality check for Trump, who had previously proclaimed that farmers’ “loyalty” to him meant they would be unswayed by what he said was a coordinated campaign by Beijing to target traditionally Republican constituencies with tariff action.

“China has openly stated that they are actively trying to impact and change our election by attacking our farmers, ranchers and industrial workers because of their loyalty to me,” Trump tweeted in September. “What China does not understand is that these people are great patriots and fully understand that China has been taking advantage of the United States on trade for many years. They also know that I am the one that knows how to stop it.”

In a highly charged press conference on Wednesday, which saw the president engage in a heated exchange with reporters as he sought to frame the midterm elections as a victory for Republicans, Trump attributed his party’s lost seats in the House to candidates’ refusal to “embrace” him.

A number of Republicans had sought to distance themselves from Trump, he said, including Peter Roskam of Illinois, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Mia Love of Utah.

“Mia Love gave me no love, and she lost”, he said. “Too bad. Sorry about that Mia.”

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