Staff Columnist

Why trade wasn't a bigger election factor

U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, appeared on stage with President Donald Trump during a roundtable discussion on workforce development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, on July 26, 2018.
U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, appeared on stage with President Donald Trump during a roundtable discussion on workforce development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, on July 26, 2018.

Tell me why, read one of several messages I’ve gotten since the election, President Donald Trump’s trade war didn’t have a greater impact on voting in farm country. Also, why weren’t local politicians closely aligned to Trump’s tariffs held more accountable for their support?

First, we need to separate the issue and politicians. In Iowa, most federal office holders on the ballot who did not push back with warnings of what policies reaped on the ground lost support. U.S. Reps. Rod Blum and David Young, Republican incumbents in the 1st and 3rd Districts, were replaced by their respective Democratic opponents, Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne. And, even in Iowa’s heavily Republican 4th District, ever-controversial U.S. Rep. Steve King faced his closest race, squeaking back into Congress with 50.33 percent of the vote.

While I’m not as familiar with campaign happenings in Young-Axne race, in the 1st District Finkenauer campaigned heavily on populist themes, including the negative affects of current national policies on Iowa farmers.

“Tariffs should be fair, but they shouldn’t make things harder,” Finkenauer said in one television ad featuring relatives who farm corn and soybeans.

Incumbent Blum, who battled negative public sentiment on several fronts, including a House ethics investigation, did himself no favors by appearing in Peosta with Trump and publicly thanking the president for having “political courage” on trade. Not only did this appear to be a reversal of opinion by Blum, who had earlier joined other members of the Iowa delegation in a letter of caution, but Trump didn’t remember the Congressman’s name, referring to him as “Matt.”

Farmers in Iowa and throughout the nation do not walk or vote in lockstep, but they do tend to look for and support politicians who have the ear of policymakers or can otherwise spark influence. On this issue, confidence in Blum was shaken.

At the state level, farmers heard incumbent politicians with a consistent message of caution who maintained their ability to influence Washington movers and shakers. Many were willing to vote for state lawmakers and a governor on hope that their influence could result in policy changes more favorable to producers and manufacturers.

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But the biggest elephant in the room (no pun intended) is the idea a majority of voters hold direct interest in farm policy. While it is true that about a third of the state economy is agricultural, farms, farm land and the people who run and work them are in decline in the Hawkeye State, just as they are nationally.

As summarized by the National Agricultural Statistics Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “The number of farms in the United States for 2017 is estimated at 2.05 million, down 12,000 farms from 2016. Total land in farms, at 910 million acres, decreased 1 million acres from 2016. The average farm size for 2017 is 444 acres, up two acres from the previous year.”

Farm income may be down 13 percent from last year, but most Iowans, just like most Americans, were purposefully insulated from the brunt of Trump’s policies — at least for the midterms.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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