NEILLSVILLE - Like a lot of farmers in this Republican patch of northern Wisconsin, Mark McGuire is feeling some pain from the Trump tariffs and the trade war they’ve fueled.
But he’s also a supporter of President Donald Trump, so he’s hoping the trade fight leads to a better deal for the U.S. in the long run.
“It’s hurting,” said McGuire, interviewed at the county fair in rural Clark County, which voted for Trump by 32 points in 2016. “But I’m still for (Trump). He knows how to wheel and deal. I am hoping, in the end, we come out on top … (but) it’s going to hurt in between.”
In farm-and-factory states such as Wisconsin, tariffs are a midterm election wild-card, complicated by confounding political crosscurrents and the economic impact on Wisconsin products such as motorcycles, cranberries and cheese.
Do you think raising tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to the U.S. will help the U.S. economy or hurt the U.S. economy?
In general, do you think that free trade agreements between the
U.S. and other countries have been a good thing or a bad thing for the United States?
Many of those feeling the fallout are Trump voters. Will tariffs cut into the GOP base or will these voters stand by the president and his party?
Meanwhile, politicians on both sides are offering voters mixed messages on trade.
Up for re-election, U.S. Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin supports tariffs against China but not against the European Union, Canada and Mexico.
“I’m not against tariffs. (But) these have been haphazard. They haven’t been smart,” Baldwin said in an interview while visiting a paper mill in Combined Locks Friday.
Her potential GOP opponents, Leah Vukmir and Kevin Nicholson, say they want a world with no tariffs. But they are backing the Trump tariffs as a bargaining chip.
The result is that the Senate candidate who is philosophically “pro-tariff” argues the Trump tariffs go too far. And the ones who want a world “without tariffs” support the president’s tariffs.
Muddying the waters even more, voters in the two parties are experiencing a long-term inversion on trade. Republicans were once more supportive of free trade. Now they are more skeptical. The reverse is true of Democrats.
Almost 80% of Democratic voters in Wisconsin think the Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum will hurt the U.S. economy in polling this year by the Marquette Law School; only 12% think they will help.
GOP voters are far more divided, but their views are more positive than negative: 45% say the tariffs will help the economy and 32% say they will hurt.
Overall, there is little question the tariffs are unpopular in Wisconsin right now: only 28% of registered voters say they’ll help while 56% say they will hurt.
And there is little question that many people are feeling some pain.
In town meetings in his very Republican southeastern Wisconsin district, GOP Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner has heard business people vent. A maker of kitchenware told him in June the tariffs had cost him $150,000 so far and “real families are being crushed.” Another manufacturer complained in Brookfield last month that the tariffs were going to cost him $500,000.
“If I can’t get my customers to accept a 7% to 8% price increase for absolutely no reason at all, and lose that much money … I will have to start letting (employees) go,” said John Perdue, whose company makes electronic industrial controls in Menomonee Falls.
In an interview, Sensenbrenner said, “people are unhappy” and “an awful lot of manufacturers are suffering.” He has joined in letters of protest to the White House and has co-sponsored legislation by GOP Congressman Mike Gallagher of Green Bay (and opposed by the Trump administration) to limit the president’s authority to set certain tariffs.
Democratic Congressman Ron Kind of La Crosse is a co-sponsor of the same bill. He has been holding trade forums in his rural western Wisconsin district to highlight the costs of the tariff policy.
“The impact is real. No one likes it and everyone is hoping for a quick resolution,” Kind said of the falling prices that many farmers are seeing because of retaliatory tariffs.
"I always thought the administration was underestimating the overall consequences of what they're doing with this trade war," Kind said.
But on both sides, politicians are being pulled in competing directions.
GOP Gov. Scott Walker, up for re-election, has long been a conventionally pro-trade Republican, which typically carries with it huge skepticism toward tariffs. But like many in his party, he is averse to openly clashing with Trump. Asked several times in an interview Saturday if he thought the Trump tariffs were bad policy or harmful to Wisconsin, Walker’s only criticism was indirect.
“I think tariffs in general are not a good policy,” said Walker.
Democrat Baldwin has a much different history on trade. She has criticized past trade deals with other countries and defends tariffs as a legitimate tool against unfair trade practices by other countries.
But her rhetoric on the Trump tariffs is also mixed.
“I think that tariffs and countervailing duties are very important tools in going after cheating,” she said in an interview, calling China the “main culprit” in cheating.
But she said, “I cannot understand why this president has decided to include Canada, Mexico and the European Union in the steel and aluminum tariffs. I don’t see the evidence that they are playing the same way that China is.”
When Trump ripped Harley-Davidson again in a tweet Sunday, Baldwin responded on Twitter that Wisconsin businesses “need better trade deals, not tweets and trade wars.”
But for the most part, Baldwin’s openness to tariffs has made her a less vocal critic of Trump’s trade policies than the state’s Republican U.S. senator, the free-market conservative Ron Johnson.
Johnson backs legislation to limit Trump’s tariff powers and told reporters in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol recently that the Trump policy of setting tariffs and then offering federal aid to compensate farmers hurt in the trade war smacked of a “Soviet-type of economy.”
“Commissars deciding who’s going to be granted waivers, commissars in the administration figuring out how they’re going to sprinkle around benefits,” said Johnson in comments quoted by Politico. “I’m very exasperated.”
The irony is that voters in Johnson’s party are now more pro-tariff and more negative about trade than voters in Baldwin’s party.
That shift has been fueled by a Democratic president (Barack Obama) who backed trade deals and a GOP president (Trump) who now attacks them.
“The support (among Democratic voters) for trade agreements went up under the Obama administration when we had a Democratic administration promoting that. And for now, it’s continuing to rise because Trump is viewed as anti-trade,” said Kind, a “pro-trade” Democrat who has historically clashed with labor unions in his own party over his support for expanded trade.
“The real civil war (on trade) that’s going on right now is in the Republican Party. Where do they go?” said Kind.
The turnout Saturday for a GOP campaign event for Walker in Plover included Anthony J. Kizewski, a potato and soy bean farmer wearing a Trump T-shirt and a “Make America Great Again” cap. Kizewski predicted the tariffs would lead to improved trade in the long run despite short-term pain.
“We’re willing to accept it for the betterment of the country,” he said of the fallout. “It’s about time we had someone fighting for us.”
In Republican Clark County in north central Wisconsin, several farmers at the county fair said they are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt right now on his tariff policy.
Some noted that the problems facing dairy farmers — including an over-supply of milk — predate the tariffs.
Others said they are hoping the trade wars lead to a better deal for U.S. farmers — soon.
“I don’t know how it comes out, like everybody,” said Brian Begert, who has a dairy farm with 500 cows and said farmers in the upper Midwest were being targeted by China for retaliatory tariffs because they’re seen as part of Trump’s support base.
“I don’t like everything that (Trump) does, but I do think that he loves the country and (the system) does need fixing,” he said.
“He’s a lot smarter than I am,” said Begert. “I just hope he knows what he’s doing.”