DUBUQUE — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg asked a crowd of hot and sticky supporters packed into an Iowa brewery last weekend whether the United States has a plan to win the ongoing trade war with China.
“Nooo,” came the response.
The world’s two largest economies have been embroiled in a 10-month trade war that has roiled global supply chains and rattled financial markets. Farmers, who helped carry Trump to his 2016 election win, have been among the hardest hit as China has imposed tariffs on imports of U.S. agricultural products including soybeans, pork and grain sorghum in response to U.S. tariffs on its goods.
Now, increasing frustrations over the prolonged dispute are prompting some rural residents in Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating contest in February, to consider candidates other than President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Their desire for alternatives highlights the deep financial pain the trade war is causing in the agriculture sector, a backbone of Iowa’s economy. Farm incomes have also suffered from years of overproduction and low commodity prices.
Virgil Murray of Bellevue, a city of about 2,000 people, voted for Trump and considers himself a Republican. But the 72-year-old retired school superintendent attended the rally for Buttigieg on Saturday in Dubuque with his wife, a Democrat.
Murray said he is open to voting for a Democratic candidate this time.
“A lot of the farmers voted for Trump. Now they’re feeling it,” said Murray, who lives near the Mississippi River, a pipeline for moving grain from Midwest farms to export terminals along the Gulf Coast.
Trump has pledged to help farmers with direct payments and says the China trade war will benefit them in the long run.
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Other Democratic candidates including Joe Biden, who leads primary polls, also have criticized Trump’s trade policies.
Farmers worry that a deal to end the trade war would take much longer than expected after Trump increased tariffs May 9 on another $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. China quickly raised tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods.
The Trump administration wants any trade deal with China to include purchases of more than $1.2 trillion worth of American products, including agricultural commodities.
The countries appeared on track for an agreement before relations soured this month, pushing soybean futures to their lowest prices in more than a decade.
“We were optimistic. That blew up,” Ken Ries, a farmer who raises soybeans, corn and hogs, said in an interview at his home in Ryan.
Ries, 69, voted for Trump in 2016 and said he will not vote for a Democrat in 2020 — but would consider a candidate other than Trump if there’s a GOP primary.
“The soybean farmer is sucking air,” Ries said.
Some farmers are wary of Democrats who have expressed opposition to “Big Ag” and support for the Green New Deal, a proposal that aims to cut carbon emissions in agriculture and other parts of the economy, said Kirk Leeds, chief executive of the Iowa Soybean Association.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential contender, has advocated breaking up large agribusinesses that dominate dealings in the meat and grain sectors.
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“I think you’re going to see the support for the president stay pretty solid, based on no clear alternative,” Leeds said.
But some farmers who are unhappy with Trump and also dislike Democrats could not vote at all during the next election, Leeds said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing a second package of aid for farmers hurt by the trade war of up to $20 billion. The agency in 2018 pledged up to $12 billion, most of it in direct payments to farmers to help offset their crop losses. It has allocated about $9.4 billion so far.
Charmayne McMurray, who raised crops and livestock for more than a quarter century in Andrew, said the payouts will not stop farmers from considering Democratic candidates.
“Farmers, they want to work. They don’t want a handout,” said McMurray, a 73-year-old undecided Democrat who now lives in Dubuque and was among about 550 people at Buttigieg’s rally there.