WASHINGTON – As goes the soybean harvest, so could go control of Congress.
One-third of the nation’s most contested House districts are home to major soybean farms, primarily in the Midwest, a USA TODAY analysis shows. President Donald Trump performed strongly in that region in 2016, but the area is now girding for a substantial harvest-time blow from his tariffs, just before voters head to the polls Nov. 6.
From southern Minnesota, where Republicans are hoping to claim an open House seat long held by Democrats, to an Illinois district where Democrats are angling to pick off a Republican incumbent, soybean farmers have watched prices plummet amid an escalating trade war between the U.S. and China.
“The short term is what scares us,” said Bill Gordon, a fourth-generation soybean farmer in southern Minnesota who backed Trump two years ago but is concerned about losing tens of thousands of dollars on this year’s harvest.
“It could definitely be an interesting midterm election.”
Responding to mounting criticism from farm-state Republicans, Trump toured Iowa and Illinois on Thursday, arguing that his trade policies helped industries such as steel. Trump, sporting a “Make Our Farmers Great Again” hat, urged patience.
“Now China is going after our soybean farmers in the hopes we will surrender our intellectual property,” Trump said. “We will not let anyone bully our wonderful American farmers.”
Trump has also promised to work with the European Union to try to tear down trade barriers, saying that would pave the way for Europe to buy more soybeans. The administration provided few details.
“We just opened up Europe for you farmers,” Trump said in Iowa. “You’re not going to be too angry with Trump, I can tell you.”
Yet, according to the Department of Agriculture, Europe is already open: It’s the fifth-largest export market for U.S. farmers.
The lack of progress on trade deals with China – evidenced in part by the president’s repeated pleas for farmers to remain patient – has made it harder for U.S. pork producers and soybean farmers to sell their products.
Politically, the issue has given Democrats an opening to blame Republican candidates for the effects of Trump’s aggressive approach on trade.
Democrats need to flip 23 seats held by Republicans to gain control of the House. Republicans appear on more solid footing in the Senate, where a higher share of Democrats are up for election in competitive races.
Democrat Abby Finkenauer, a two-term state lawmaker from Dubuque who is running in a toss-up House contest in eastern Iowa, blasted what she described as Trump’s “Twitter trade war” and said she hoped the president would hear from Iowans on the issue.
“The president needs to change course before he does even more damage,” she said.
Incumbent Rep. Rod Blum, a Republican who joined Trump for part of his Iowa visit, praised the president’s long-term strategy in a recent op-ed but also stressed that Iowa farmers “need a ‘win’ soon.”