‘We’re riding a tiger’: The Iowa GOP bets it all on Trump

Source: By NATASHA KORECKI, Politico • Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The president’s trade war could cripple the state, but Republicans trust in him as negotiator-in-chief.

Donald Trump is pictured at Joni Ernst's 2016 Roast and Ride. | Getty Images
Then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures to then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad at Sen. Joni Ernst’s Roast and Ride event on August 27, 2016 in Des Moines. Joining Trump from left to right are a number of Iowa Republicans including: Then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Branstad, Ernst, Republican Party of Iowa chairman Jeff Kaufmann and Rep. Steve King. | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

DES MOINES — Donald Trump’s trade war with China could cost Iowa farmers hundreds of millions of dollars and do untold damage to the state economy.

But you’d never know it from talking to Republicans at the recent state GOP convention here. When Iowa Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kaufmann asked more than 1,100 delegates a defining question — who was still behind President Donald Trump? — there was no hesitation. In an exuberant display of unity, more than 1,100 delegates sprang to their feet, whistling, cheering and offering prolonged applause.

Far from being panic-stricken, Iowa Republicans remain committed to the president as negotiator-in-chief. They’re convinced they have a direct line to the administration, the result of 18 months of careful White House cultivation in this early presidential state.

“There’s got to be a little apprehension about trade, and I would paint it this way: I’ve been asking for years for a president who would play brinkmanship, who is also an enigma,” Republican Rep. Steve King told the convention crowd. “Well, we elected Donald Trump, and I think we got both of those things.”

King then relayed assurances offered to him personally by Larry Kudlow, the White House’s chief economic adviser. “Give him time. Give him room,” King said. “We’re riding a tiger. I think it’s a little dangerous to try to get off.”

The Republicans’ patience with their president amid an escalating trade war is as remarkable as it is politically perilous in an agricultural swing state that has historically held a deep disdain for trade meddling.

On June 15, Trump announced 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods and China promised to exact retaliatory tariffs, including on a key Iowa export: soybeans. Days later, Trump threatened another round, this time with 10 percent tariffs on an additional $200 billion in Chinese imports.

Iowa could be especially hard hit: With nearly $2 billion in soybean exports to China, it has the largest exposure to the tariffs of any state in the nation, according to a recent report from Moody’s Investors Service.

Soy growers have been among those calling on Trump to deescalate trade tensions, citing plummeting prices, yet Republican confidence in the White House seemed to extend to the five-way race for an office arguably most relevant to Iowa’s trade conflict: the GOP nomination for state secretary of agriculture.

In their pitches prior to a convention vote, each disclosed their positions on abortion or guns, talked about their families or their bona fides as farmers.

None brought up tariffs.

“I regularly hear from folks that there is a recognition that we need a rebalancing of trade with China in particular,” acting Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig told POLITICO after claiming the GOPnomination. “Those issues need to be resolved, and they needed to be resolved for years. I find a willingness by folks to say: ‘Hey, the administration is on the right track here.’”

Naig said a personal visit days earlier by the administration’s chief agricultural negotiator, Gregg Doud, underscored the administration’s willingness to lend a sympathetic ear to Iowans.

“I spent the day with him, he traveled, he met with Iowans, he met with Iowa businesses,” Naig said. “I know Mr. Doud heard me loud and clear and understood the urgency these people feel.”

GOP leaders are convinced Trump will deliver a better deal for Iowa in the end — a belief that’s grounded in a White House that has diligently maintained its relationships with Iowa’s top political brass. That began with installing then-Gov. Terry Branstad, who held the governor’s mansion for 23 of the previous 35 years, into the powerful post of U.S. ambassador to China.

Branstad’s unique perch and long ties to Iowa have helped allay fears that the administration would allow a trade war that could crash the state’s economy.

“Iowa has never really had a stronger or more consistent advocate than Terry Branstad,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “He’s an advocate for trade, he’s an advocate for agriculture, he has a relationship with Premier Xi going back many years. He gets Iowa specifically. He has lots of experience as governor of Iowa, and he understands industries that cross state lines. He takes into consideration what the administration is working to do ultimately to get the Chinese to behave a little better on intellectual property, but he does understand not just Iowa, but the economics that are at stake here.”

Both senators — Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst — frequently meet with Trump himself or other top Cabinet members on Iowa-related matters. Former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey now serves in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kaufmann, who’s had his own Oval Office visits, marvels over Trump’s ability to rattle off the names of the Iowa delegation from memory.

“He has gone out of his way to let Iowa know that he hasn’t forgotten about us,” Kaufmann said of the president. “I think it’s fair to say, based on my conversations: A member of our federal delegation has at least one personal contact — that means no go-between — one personal contact with the president of the United States a week. It’s more than any other president, Republican or Democrat, has ever given a delegation.”

Republicans hold up a recent victory on ethanol as tangible evidence Trump will come through on his trade promises. Earlier this month, at the urging of Iowa leaders, the president rejected a Renewable Fuel Standards deal that Republicans had warned would deliver a devastating blow to the state’s vital ethanol industry. Trump’s decision ran counter to recommendations by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, prompting both Grassley and Ernst to declare victory for Iowa farmers.

None of it guarantees Trump will be able to replicate his 2016 victory here. A White House policy that’s viewed as hostile to farmers could precipitate a backlash from the dozens of rural counties that swung for Trump in 2016 after previously backing Barack Obama. Those are the kinds of counties Trump needs to win states like Iowa and Wisconsin in 2020.

A February Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed 51 percent of Iowans disapproved of Trump’s performance, compared with 44 percent who approved. Those numbers were more positive for the president than a December survey that showed 35 percent approving and 60 percent disapproval.

Despite Trump’s 10-point win in 2016, Democrats show signs of climbing back. They report record primary turnout; they’re contesting more state races than they have in a generation; and they’re building new strategies to win back those rural swing counties, state Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said.

“All the signs are pointing to the fact that we’ve got energy and enthusiasm on our side,” Price said, accusing Republicans of blindly backing a volatile administration on trade to the detriment of local farmers.

For all their name-dropping and White House access, Price said, Republicans have little to show Iowans. Trump dug in his heels on China, anyway.

“Where’s the proof? They might have access. But access isn’t worth a hill of beans if you’re not actually getting anything. Going to the White House and hanging out with the president does not actually matter,” Price said. “What does that matter for Iowans if farmers are taking it in the pocket book here with these tariffs? If schools are closing, if people aren’t getting any health care? If all that’s happening, what are the people of Iowa actually getting? And that’s the question I think that’s going to be on the ballot this November.”

Republicans are well aware of it. The state’s two GOP senators have suggested there are limits to how far they are willing to go on the issue of tariffs. Ernst and Grassley on Wednesday met with Branstad to discuss the tariffs’ impact on Iowa.

“With China vowing to retaliate, farmers, ranchers and rural communities stand to lose the most,” Ernst said in a statement. “And, while I recognize and support President Trump’s desire to hold China accountable — this should not be done at the expense of rural America.”

In the governor’s race, where Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell has already accused Gov. Kim Reynolds of “choosing party loyalty over Iowa’s businesses,” Reynolds has also publicly expressed her concerns.

“We’ll reach out to the administration this week, and so we will be talking to Cabinet members and the administration again and tell them the same thing, that our farmers want to work with you but we need to get something done because we, they produce and we have a fragile economy,” she said. “Things are going really well, and we want to continue that momentum and not go backwards.”

Even the most loyal of Republicans acknowledged that volatility surrounding trade issues could scramble the state’s political equation.

“As of right now, I’d say we’re supportive of him trying to make free trade freer. We’re willing to stick with him through the negotiation,” Kaufmann said. “If nothing has changed, and we’re in an all-out trade war, and it’s six to eight months from now and you ask me this question, I may have a different answer.”