WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers from farm states have a loud, clear message for President Donald Trump: Don’t betray the rural voters who helped elect you by blowing up the trade agreements they rely on.
If you do, they’re warning, it could cost the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections.
Rural state lawmakers want to hear reassurance from Trump in Tuesday’s State of the Union address that he won’t abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement. But they aren’t expecting it.
The president recently said pulling out of NAFTA “would be frankly a positive for this country,” a quote that sent chills through the farming economy.
“You can talk about a better trade deal and push Humpty Dumpty off the wall, but putting Humpty Dumpty back on the wall is difficult,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who served on the Trump presidential campaign’s Agricultural Advisory Committee.
“That’s the thing we want to avoid at all costs,” Roberts said. “You pull the trigger on that and you’re going to make a bad situation at farms even worse.”
Negotiators for the United States, Canada and Mexico sounded slightly more positive about the prospects for agreement on updating NAFTA after the sixth round of talks concluded Monday in Montreal. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told reporters he hoped “we start seeing some breakthroughs between now and the next round” of discussions, slated for late February in Mexico.
Even if Trump stays with NAFTA, however, Roberts worried that agriculture could be a lesser priority in NAFTA renegotiations or even be used as some kind of bargaining chip to get a better deal for manufacturing.
Fooling with NAFTA’s rural provisions could be politically costly. Voters who live in rural areas gave Trump a 61 percent to 34 percent advantage over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to network exit polls. Kansans voted overwhelmingly for Trump, by 56 percent to 36 percent.
The rural vote will be a factor in some of the most competitive Senate and House elections in the country this November, including races in Missouri, Indiana and California.
Mexico and Canada are the No. 2 and 3 destinations for U.S. agricultural exports, approaching a combined $40 billion in sales in 2016. Our northern and southern neighbors are particularly important markets for dairy, meat and grain grown in the United States. Sales of some key exports, however, have been slipping amid heightened competition and rising tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican and Canadian governments.
Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana are seeking re-election in states the president won by double digits in 2016, making them some of the most vulnerable members of the Senate. Missouri ranked 13th among states in terms of agricultural sales in 2016, while Indiana was 10th, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
California, alone, produces more than a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The California Farm Bureau Federation notes that Canada is the second largest export destination for the state’s agricultural products, while Mexico is fifth.
Democrats are targeting two Republicans in the state’s San Joaquin Valley where much of that farming occurs — Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock and David Valadao of Hanford. Clinton won both districts in 2016, along with five others in California, making the state pivotal to Democrats’ hopes of reclaiming the House majority. Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win control of the chamber.
Some national Republicans are warning that withdrawal from NAFTA could cost the party control of Congress. GOP strategist Karl Rove wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion column earlier this month that such a NAFTA move would hurt state’s farming economies “while handing Democrats the midterm elections on a silver platter.”
For some agricultural regions, though, the NAFTA issue is not as clear-cut.
“NAFTA has benefited many growers, but it has also had a negative impact on certain industries like tomatoes and asparagus,” noted Sara Neagu-Reed, California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Legislative associate.
While the agreement has been a boon to producers, it’s a concern for local labor unions, interests politicians in many areas must balance.
Industry groups broadly agree that NAFTA needs to be updated and revised, but that unilaterally pulling out would be enormously disruptive. They’ve been actively communicating that to their representatives.
Trump’s popularity with the GOP base should make Republicans wary of being too aggressive in their pro-NAFTA advocacy, said Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign newsletter.
“There is a segment of the Republican Party that is now loyal to President Trump above all,” Gonzales said. While many Republicans from deep-red states and districts may be critical of the White House’s position on trade, they “cross the president at their own peril.”
Roberts has focused his pitch on the harm Trump could do to his own voters and the overall economy if he abandoned NAFTA.
“You put it on a personal basis and the people that voted for him and live in small-town America and what’s at stake,” Roberts said. “Because whatever farmers and ranchers do is a catalyst for the entire economy.”
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