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For Minnesota’s Trump-boosting congressional candidates, trade war rhetoric creates political divide

Steel tariffs could give the GOP a big boost in northern Minnesota’s mining country. In the agriculture heavy south, though, Republicans have some explaining to do.

Soybeans are big business in southern Minnesota’s First District.

Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber have a lot in common: both are Republicans running for U.S. House seats in Minnesota. Both are attempting to flip seats held by retiring Democrats, and the districts they’re running in — Minnesota’s 1st and 8th Districts, respectively — are seen as prime pick-up opportunities: both supported President Donald Trump by 15-point margins in the 2016 election.

And Stauber and Hagedorn both are big supporters of the president: Stauber has said that Trump is “saving us,” and Hagedorn has branded himself to voters as a congressional “reinforcement” for Trump, a loyal soldier in the #MAGA army.

But on the issue of trade — perhaps the president’s signature economic issue — the two Trump-loving Republicans find themselves in very different positions. In March, the president announced stiff tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, delighting the iron mining industry, which remains an influential force in the 8th District, which covers much of northeastern Minnesota.

In April, Trump followed that up by announcing plans to slap $150 billion worth of new tariffs on dozens of imports from China, prompting China to announce counter-tariffs on over 100 U.S. products, which targeted key agricultural products like pork, soybeans, corn, and beef. That was bad news for Minnesota’s 1st District, a center of soybean and pork production, and farmers there are deeply apprehensive of Trump’s moves.

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Though both districts supported Trump, a messy round of tariffs — or even a full-blown trade war — could affect these two corners of Minnesota very differently, both economically and politically. So far, the tariffs have been a huge asset for Stauber as he works to convince 8th District voters that Trump and the GOP are on their side. In the 1st, Hagedorn and his GOP rival, state Sen. Carla Nelson, are left trying to persuade anxious farmers that their worst fears won’t materialize — while keeping careful to look like they are not blaming Trump for any of the mess.

Trump is always right, even when he’s not

Though their districts are different, the Republicans in the running for Congress had nothing but good things to say about the president and his trade policies.

“Our steelworkers are very happy this is finally being done,” Stauber told MinnPost, framing the steel and aluminum tariffs as an overdue move to protect the U.S. industry from being taken advantage of by nations, such as China, which had been “dumping” subsidized steel into the U.S. market, undercutting domestic product. (Though the U.S. imports most of its steel from Canada, Brazil, and South Korea, China has been a subject of anti-dumping investigations, and penalties, by U.S. and international trade authorities.)

Hagedorn, a former U.S. Treasury official, said that he believes the president and his aides “will do everything possible to make sure our markets are open, and we have expanding global markets for ag, so our farmers and rural communities can thrive.”

Pete Stauber
Pete Stauber

In CD8, Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and a former police officer, was quick to acknowledge agricultural anxiety.

“Our American farmers are just as important an industry within the economy as the steelworkers are,” Stauber said. “I don’t believe that it’s President Trump’s intention to pit the American farmer versus the American steelworker… All we want is a level and fair playing field.”

But defending the administration’s tough line on trade is a comfortable position for a candidate in the 8th District, regardless of party. Though the district is home to plenty of agriculture — it includes productive crop and dairy areas in places like Crow Wing and Mille Lacs Counties — mining interests and labor unions have typically played an outsized role in the district’s politics.

Eighth District map

In recent election cycles, Republicans have been making an aggressive play for voters on the Iron Range, the mining stronghold where DFL candidates have dominated for generations. The steel tariffs were designed with the intention of boosting the fortunes of Trump and Republicans in areas like these.

Mining advocates in northeastern Minnesota say that the tariffs have had their intended effect. Kelsey Johnson, president of the Minnesota Iron Mining Association, says the Trump move is playing “very well” in the 8th District.

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“President Trump made good on his campaign promise to make American jobs come back and make America great again, and this is one step in that entire process,” she told MinnPost, saying that 3,000 employees in the industry have been brought back nationwide in recent weeks.

“This is a real economic benefit. It’s really going to change the dynamics.”

First District: tariffs a ‘big red flag’

The ripple effects from the administration’s approach to trade are definitely changing the dynamics in the 1st District — but not in the way Republicans wanted.

In its list of over 100 U.S. products it would penalize in retaliation, the Chinese government said it would hit soybeans, soybean meal, corn, and pork. All are key products in the 1st District, which is home to more than two million acres of soybeans and sells some $1.7 billion worth of pork products each year.

First District map

Trump won his victory in 2016 on the strength of support in rural pockets like this swath of southern Minnesota, where farmers believed the New York City real estate mogul heard them and understood their concerns.

To some, the president’s willingness to risk a trade war — knowing well that an export-reliant industry like agriculture would take the brunt of initial pain — shows that he doesn’t really have ag interests at heart.

Seventh District DFL Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, told the Forum News Service “I don’t know how many letters I’ve sent and phone calls I’ve made warning [the administration] not to do this… There’s no way to put a good spin on this.”

Bob Worth, a soybean farmer in Lincoln County in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, told MinnPost that if the tariffs move forward, they’d be devastating to farmers. The prospect of a trade war could not come at a worse time for U.S. farmers: farm incomes have been declining for five consecutive years, thanks to rising input costs and low commodity prices. Family farms across the country are going out of business, farm advocates say.

“This could be the worst time, just the way the farm economy is,” Worth says. “It’s never a great time when you start talking tariffs or embargoes, but this is going to be really bad.”

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Worth said he thinks Trump has a great agriculture policy team, but doesn’t think the president himself understands agriculture, or trade. “In Minnesota, we have to export six out of every 10 rows of beans. We can’t use them in the U.S.,” he says. “Soybeans are a unique crop because we have to export so many. That’s why a tariff just throws up such a big red flag.”

Jim Hagedorn
Jim Hagedorn

Defending his trade moves, the president said on Monday that farmers are “doing this for the country” and that “we’ll make it up to them.”

Hagedorn, who lost to outgoing DFL Rep. Tim Walz in 2014 and 2016 and is seeking the GOP endorsement a third time, must walk a fine line between being responsive to farmers’ concerns and being seen as an ally to Trump, who he says remains broadly popular in CD1.

“The president and his team are negotiating in a very straightforward fashion,” Hagedorn said with a laugh. “Both sides are maneuvering.”

Both Hagedorn and Nelson were reluctant to criticize the administration much, but made clear that the ag tariffs would be bad for CD1. “Obviously, it’s going to unfold,” Hagedorn said of the process. “I do believe that the president and his team understand how important and critical it is to maintain these markets. I’ve passed that word along every which way I can.”

Nelson, who represents a state Senate district in Rochester, said she is concerned about the impact of tariffs on southern Minnesota.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson

“We need to hold China accountable for their predatory practices in international trade and the stealing of intellectual property from American innovators and businesses,” she said in a statement to MinnPost. “At the same time, we have to ensure that it does not come at the expense of Minnesota's agricultural economy, which took the brunt of the hit in our country's last trade war.”

Hagedorn, who lives in Blue Earth, also maintained that Trump’s policies, on balance, are better for farmers than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“Effectively, they believed they had a war against agriculture,” Hagedorn said, pointing to Obama regulations on energy and the environment, along with the Affordable Care Act, which he argues drove up health care costs to an extreme degree.

Still, Hagedorn said “this is a tough time to have any burdens imposed on agriculture… People are hurting here, and we need to make sure they’re taken care of.”

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Don’t get associated with a ‘disaster’

Those following the trade fallout in Minnesota are quick to caution that much of the discussion is theoretical, at least at this point: aside from the steel and aluminum tariffs, which officially went on the books in March, the proposed tariffs and counter-tariffs from the U.S. and China have simply been proposed, and there’s no timetable for them to take effect.

There’s some confidence around Minnesota that the hundreds of billions of dollars in new tariffs from both sides, which would have profound effects on the world’s two biggest economies, are simply brash opening bids to start negotiations.

Nelson said that “Right now these tariffs are still a threat from China, and though I take the threat very seriously, let’s allow our president some room for the 'Art of the Deal' before raising the alarm further.”

“I’m hoping that this is a tool, or something that China and the U.S. can use to sit down and work things out,” Worth, the soybean farmer, said.

This week saw an initial sign of de-escalation: China announced it would be reducing tariffs on imported U.S. cars, which Trump has loudly protested over the years.

In the near term, however, the administration’s aggressive approach to trade is opening schisms in the Trump coalition, creating problems for candidates like Hagedorn and Nelson, who would have otherwise had a relatively straightforward strategy: hugging Trump as close as possible through November, like Stauber is primed to.

According to Robert Kudrle, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies international trade, the strategy that each candidate is taking makes sense. “If I were trying to be a politician in those districts, I’d be doing about what those guys are doing. You’ve got to put the best possible face on the situation.”

The trade developments make dynamics more interesting on the DFL side, too. Democrats in CD1 think the trade issue is one they can exploit to woo independent-minded voters who backed Trump, by highlighting how his administration’s sometimes haphazard policymaking process leads to real consequences.

Dan Feehan, a candidate for the DFL endorsement in CD1, said trade decisions need to be “smart and effective, not reckless and impulsive… In Congress, I will work with our partners to fight for fair trade practices that promote Minnesota’s farmers and support our ag economy.”

Meanwhile, in CD8, Democratic candidates were reluctant to cast the tariff moves as reckless. Jason Metsa, a state representative running for the endorsement, told MinnPost that the steel tariffs “are things people up here really wanted to see… Our workers can produce more tons of ore per worker than anywhere else on the planet, all they ask for is a level playing field.”

Kudrle cautioned that these early trade moves may lead to unintended consequences that could ripple across the state, touching industries like manufacturing and retail, potentially leading to lost jobs and higher prices for everyday goods.

“I think that the people in Minnesota who are going to be harmed by this is dramatically higher than the people who will be helped by it,” he said of the trade policy.

Of the candidates in the mix, Kudrle had a warning: “Protectionism has a lot of friends, but they have to be careful, because they don’t wanna be associated with an international disaster.”

“What happens with a trade war,” he says, “if there is a trade war, nobody wins.”