CASSELTON, N.D. — Here in the largest soybean-producing county in the country, a snowy winter has left North Dakota farmers like Robert Runck with time on their hands before spring planting — time they have spent stewing over how much they stand to lose if President Trump starts a trade war with China.
“If he doesn’t understand what he’s doing to the nation by doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be a one-term president, plain and simple,” said Mr. Runck, a fourth-generation farmer who voted for Mr. Trump. Pausing outside the post office in this town of 2,300, Mr. Runck said the repercussions could be more immediate for Representative Kevin Cramer, a Republican whose bid against Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, has been complicated by the proposed tariffs.
“If it doesn’t get resolved by election time, I would imagine it would cost Kevin Cramer some votes,” he said.
Stern warnings are coming from all over the Midwest about the political peril for Republicans in Mr. Trump’s recent course of action, in which the tariffs he slapped on foreign competitors invited retaliatory tariffs on American agriculture. Soybeans are America’s second largest export to China, and that country’s proposed 25 percent duties on the crop would hit hardest in states like Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota — where there are highly competitive House races — as well as Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, whose Senate contests may determine control of the chamber.
By proposing the tariffs, Mr. Trump has moved to fulfill a central promise of his campaign: confronting those countries he believes are undermining American industry. Yet his goal — to revive the steel and aluminum industries, thereby aiding the Rust Belt states that were crucial to his election — has effectively prioritized one element of the Trump political coalition over another, larger bloc of voters. That larger segment, the farm belt, is essential to Republican success in the midterm elections and beyond.
From the still-thawing soybean fields of North Dakota and Kansas to the corn and pork farms of Iowa, voters across the political spectrum say the president’s attacks on American economic rivals could do grave damage to an already unstable commodities market.
“They’re not in touch with the reality of the Midwest and the impact that the tariffs would have,” said Bart Bergquist, a biology professor and part-time farmer who lives on 10 acres just south of Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Bergquist, who voted for Mr. Trump in the 2016 election, added that commodities prices had already taken a toll on the area.
“I know my neighbors are not rolling in money — they’re trying to supplement whatever else they can do to keep going,” he said.
Representative Rod Blum, a Republican, represents much of eastern Iowa and is facing a highly competitive race in what is the second-largest soybean-producing congressional district in the country. He and other politicians are facing a “nervous” farm community across the state, according to Grant Young, an Iowa-based Republican strategist.
“I listen to the farm show over the noon hour on WHO daily,” Mr. Young said of Iowa’s leading radio station. “They are usually a happy-go-lucky bunch promoting industry and holding a two-hour infomercial for the Farm Bureau. But the last couple of months I’m wondering if they need to take the sharp objects out of the studio.”
In Kansas, Bob Henry, who grows corn and soybeans in another up-for-grabs House district near the Nebraska border, said the country could ill afford to tangle with a market that American farmers rely on.
“For the United States soybean grower, China is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Mr. Henry said. He suggested that Beijing is exacting political payback against the Republican heartland: “China knows who got Trump elected.”
After an initial round of tariffs on a modest share of American exports, the Chinese have displayed a more keen awareness of the electoral map and moved to punish those industries whose misfortune will be felt most intensely in states and districts pivotal in 2018.
Karl Rove, the former strategist to President George W. Bush, said a trade clash “would limit Midwestern enthusiasm from our base and limit our ability to hold what we have and pick up more seats.” Mr. Rove also grumbled that Mr. Trump “has little to no understanding of the farm coalition.”
He may have a slightly better appreciation after a meeting last week in the West Wing with a small group of farm belt Republican senators and governors, during which two of them brought up the adverse impact that tariffs on exports could have in the midterm election, according to officials briefed on the conversation.
Mr. Trump used the session to direct a pair of his top economic advisers to reconsider whether the United States should join a free-trade pact with a group of Pacific nations. But just hours later he signaled on Twitter that he was unlikely to reverse course on that agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Instead, there are already whispers, in Washington and in agriculture states, that the president is risking a replay of President Jimmy Carter’s grain embargo on the Soviets, which contributed to the massive losses Democrats suffered in 1980.
Indeed, after a year in which Mr. Trump only mused about pulling out of Nafta and was stymied by Congress in his attempt to slash the Agriculture Department’s budget, there is now a sense in the farm belt that Mr. Trump’s yearning to punish China could inflict real economic and political damage on his own political base.
“This is the first time it’s in your face, especially to us in the Midwest,” said Ed Schafer, a Republican former governor of North Dakota who was agriculture secretary under George W. Bush.
There may be no other race in America that is at once as significant as the Senate contest here and as shaped by whether China’s tariffs take effect this year. Most of North Dakota’s votes are in the eastern end of the state, in the Red River Valley — a region that also happens to be home to the three largest soybean-producing counties in the nation.
Senator Heitkamp won her seat by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2012. She remains personally popular, a valuable asset in a state with just 570,000 voters, but North Dakota has turned sharply away from Democrats in recent years.
But Mr. Trump has now handed her what may be a political gift.
“Senator Heitkamp will jump on the big, bad Trump and the stupid policy that’s coming out of Washington hurting our farmers,” Mr. Schafer said. “That’s a strong message in North Dakota.”
Or as Rob Port, a conservative talk radio host and columnist in the state, put it: “This is the perfect issue for her. Her base eats up the Trump bashing, but it’s also an economic argument that’ll have rural Trump voters saying, ‘Maybe blind allegiance to Trump isn’t such a good thing.’”
Ms. Heitkamp is already testing out such a message against her rival, Mr. Cramer.
“Clearly he sees his role is to be a vote for President Trump in the United States Senate,” she said. “And I believe my role is to be a vote for North Dakota in the United States Senate.”
Mr. Cramer, who Mr. Trump repeatedly wooed to run for the Senate, accused his opponent of “hysteria” and said she was overstating what are at this point only trade negotiations.
“People in North Dakota prefer humility to hyperbole, and that kind of hyperbole I don’t think sells very well politically,” he said. “But it’s certainly not good for our farmers or good for our economy.”
But on a local talk radio program, Mr. Cramer let slip his frustration with the president’s actions. “He tends to have rather emotional responses,” he said of Mr. Trump.
North Dakota is not simply another red state where Democrats are bound for extinction. There is an enduring populist streak here, dating back to its mistrust of distant bankers and millers in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York. To this day, the state retains a state-controlled bank and mill.
“We’re Republicans until it comes to subsidies for farmers,” said George Blank, only half-jokingly, as he sipped coffee with a half dozen fellow retirees at their daily breakfast-and-bull session in Casselton’s Country Kitchen.
And, Mr. Blank noted, “everything drives on ag in this state.”
Recalling his years running a construction supply business in a state where one in four jobs is agriculture-related, he said: “When the price of corn went down that impacted us greatly.”
Now, though, soybeans have become the go-to commodity, said Vanessa Kummer, who farms 4,000 acres with her husband and son near Colfax, N.D. “It has become our cash crop and the most reliable crop to go to,” she said.
Nancy Johnson, who leads the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association, reached for a measure of cheery, upper-Midwest optimism as she expressed hope that the threat of tariffs was merely “a negotiating tactic” by Mr. Trump. But Ms. Johnson, who wears a soybean pendant necklace, said her farmers “are rightly concerned, because we’re being used as a weapon.”
Over on William Hejl’s farm in Amenia, N.D., just north of Casselton and part of the 86 percent of the state that is made up of farmland and ranches, the anxiety is as difficult to miss as the April snow crunching underfoot.
Showing a visitor his gleaming, green John Deere tractor, still in its shed for winter, Mr. Hejl said to “check back in August” — and not just to find better weather.
“If this thing hasn’t been resolved, that’s when it’s going to hurt,” he said of the outset of harvesting. “You’ve got to pay for the fuel and for the people to drive the combine.”
Kevin Skunes, a neighboring farmer who is also president of the National Corn Growers Association, joined Mr. Hejl and a visiting reporter for coffee, a brownie and a chance to sound the alarm.
“In an already depressed farm economy, if we take another hit on soybeans and corn it’s going to be disastrous,” Mr. Skunes said.
Back outside the post office in Casselton, Mr. Runck found his voice nearly drowned out by the sound of the speeding Burlington Northern Santa Fe — the same freight train that will be carrying crops west to the Pacific this fall.
But his answer carried clearly when he was asked whether he would support Ms. Heitkamp or Mr. Cramer: “I think the president has got to do the right thing between now and the election.”
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