President Donald Trump’s recent moves on trade have turned an issue long considered part of the Republican orthodoxy into a political landmine for his own party.
Last week, Trump’s administration announced steep tariffs on steel and aluminum from close allies Canada, Mexico and the European Union. In return, all three have promised retaliatory actions of their own. And on Friday, Trump that he “wouldn’t mind” scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In Washington, the moves frustrated some GOP lawmakers. Perhaps none slammed Trump’s decision more pointedly than retiring Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee, who compared the President’s moves to something that would happen in Venezuela.
“I am working with like-minded Republican senators on ways to push back on the president using authorities in ways never intended and that are damaging to our country and our allies. Will Democrats join us?” Corker tweeted.
And in several key races across the country, Republicans find themselves on the defensive over Trump’s trade agenda.
Trade politics differ by state. In Ohio, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has long backed protectionist policies and has sided with Trump on tariffs – while his Republican foe, Rep. Jim Renacci, has had to explain his past votes for international trade agreements.
In border states that are heavily dependent on international trade and rural states with agriculture exports, however, Democrats are arguing that the tariffs – which put Republicans with a long history of advocating for free trade in an awkward position – will damage the local economy.
In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke – the Democratic congressman challenging Sen. Ted Cruz in this year’s midterms – spent two days blasting Trump and Cruz over new tariffs that O’Rourke says risk devastating the state’s economy.
“Texas could be hit harder than any other state by these kinds of tariffs. Trump’s trade policies will devastate our state, businesses, & economy,” he tweeted. “Senator Cruz should have explained that to the president while they were riding together last month.”
In North Dakota, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp faces a tough re-election fight this fall, the GOP’s Senate candidate, Rep. Kevin Cramer, finds himself under attack from Heitkamp and local Democrats for dismissing concerns over Trump’s tariffs.
In an April radio interview, Cramer accused Democrats of wanting to “pour fuel on the fire of hysteria” over Trump’s Chinese tariffs. In mid-May, Cramer called concerns that the tariffs could kill North Dakota’s soybean industry “a little bit exaggerated hyperbole.”
In a statement Thursday after Trump announced new tariffs on Canada, Heitkamp’s campaign again went after Cramer.
“North Dakota farmers and ranchers know this new round of tariff threats would deal a devastating blow to our state’s ag economy and to their livelihood. But the louder their warnings have become, the more Congressman Kevin Cramer has belittled their concerns as nothing more than political ‘hysteria,’ championing the growing threat of a global trade war, instead,” said Heitkamp communications director Julia Krieger.
She said Cramer is “choosing partisan politics over North Dakota farmers and ranchers – they can count on him for one thing: To turn his back every time.”
In Missouri, another Democratic incumbent seeking re-election in a red state, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and her allies have attempted to goad Republican attorney general Josh Hawley into breaking with Trump on tariffs.
“If Hawley won’t stand up to President Trump for Missouri farmers now, how can they expect him to stand up to President Trump if elected?” Missouri Democratic Party communications director Brooke Goren said in a Thursday statement.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who faces a challenge from GOP Gov. Rick Scott, blasted Trump over the tariffs Friday in Jacksonville and warned that the tariffs could harm a local Budweiser plant, FloridaPolitics.com reported.
“Starting a trade war with our closest allies is the last thing we should be doing. No one wins in a trade war, especially hardworking families who may have to pay more for the goods they buy every day,” Nelson said.
“If this starts an international trade war,” he said, “Florida’s going to get hurt.”