GOP faces rural rebellion over Trump trade agenda

WASHINGTON — From his dairy farm in southeastern Nebraska, lifelong Republican Ben Steffen believed Donald Trump meant what he said on the campaign trail about ripping up U.S. trade agreements.

So Steffen, who produces milk, beef, soybeans, corn and wheat, wasn't shocked when Trump pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact, began renegotiating NAFTA or announced his intent to impose aluminum and steel tariffs on China that have drawn the threat of retaliatory sanctions on American products.

But he is alarmed about the potential costs of Trump's trade agenda to his own operation and the state's economy.

"This kind of chaotic volatility in our trading relationships damages the market," Steffen, who runs the farm with his wife, his sister and four full-time employees, said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "The market responds and the prices are erratic and that's destabilizing for people out here on the bottom end producing feed and food."

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Now Steffen, who didn't vote for Trump, is a vocal supporter of Jane Raybould, the Democrat running an improbable campaign against first-term Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. — and says he's talked to a lot of fellow farmers and Republicans who have "buyer's remorse" about Trump and Fischer.

While it would take a political tsunami for Fischer to lose — Trump won the state by 25 percentage points — the president's trade agenda has boxed in congressional Republicans as they fight to hold their majorities in the House and Senate, potentially affecting competitive races in more than a dozen states.

They're reluctant to distance themselves from a president who is following through on campaign-trail trade promises, whose support they need to drive Republican turnout and who vows his strategy will yield better deals for the country in the long run.

And yet in rural areas across the country that are imperiled by disruptions in U.S. relations with China, Mexico, Canada and other trading partners, Republicans are facing a potential backlash from voters who are afraid that his tack on trade will hurt their bottom lines.

"The president's actions are going to be harmful to Republican candidates in the fall if remedial action is not taken," said former Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican who represented Indiana for 36 years.

Last week, in a meeting with farm-state Republicans at the White House, Trump raised the prospect of beefing up federal agricultural subsidies to at least partially offset any pain from proposed Chinese tariffs on U.S. goods. But spending even more money at a time of exploding debt remains a front-of-mind concern for many GOP lawmakers.

"We did market-loss adjustment programs in the late 1990s and it was a huge cost, which the taxpayers are not going to like, and which farmers are not going to like either because they don't want another income support program," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "They want a market."

Thune added that there's "no appetite" for subsidies among Senate Republicans.

But that's not necessarily true among those Republican candidates trying to navigate the political tightrope created by Trump's trade policy. Some candidates would rather have subsidies that alleviate pain for their farmers than stick to party orthodoxy — at least between now and November.

Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer, in a tight race against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, looked to split the difference. In the face of a trade war, he said, subsidies would be "appropriate" to help farmers in the short term — but not over the long run.

"What I don't want is a return to some sort of direct payment culture, because our farmers don't want a direct payment culture," Cramer said. "They like the crop insurance safety net. So in terms of it being a long-term policy, I would certainly be concerned about it."

Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and longtime farmer who is running in another of the nation's most hotly contested races, said that he would support subsidies over nothing at all if Trump doesn't back away from the tariffs.

"I think as a last-ditch effort, yeah," Tester said. "Short of putting people out of business, I'd support them."

But Democrats say Trump's trade agenda has gone in exactly the wrong direction for American farmers.

"What he really needs to do instead of contracting trade markets is expand them, and he's not doing that," Tester said. "Farmers would much rather get their payments from the marketplace, so he needs to expand the markets."

Many Democrats see political opportunity in the treatment the agricultural community has gotten from Trump, who said recently that farmers will "understand that they're doing this for the country" and that he would "make it up to them."

Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist who is working with several House candidates, said Trump's message won't land well in the heartland.

"Anyone who tells these hardworking Americans that they should take it on the chin is not just wrong," Hawn said. "They do it at their own political peril."

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said his party was already well positioned to take advantage of a Trump backlash among suburban Republicans and that White House trade policy could help expand the map of politically competitive districts.

"He's not looking too good in the rural areas either right now," Pallone said. "If [we] start winning seats in Iowa and some of the farm areas, then they are really in trouble."

Trump's actions forced the debate over tariffs and subsidies, but many Republicans and Democrats — and their rural voters — would like to see him simply walk back the proposed tariffs.

"He brought [subsidies] up but really the whole focus of the discussion shifted to markets and trade and fair trade and not having tariffs," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said after meeting with Trump last week.

But the president also told lawmakers repeatedly that he has his finger on the pulse of rural America.

"He said multiple times he's very focused [on] getting something that's very good for agriculture and good for farmers and ranchers, and that farmers and ranchers supported him in his election," Hoeven said.

But even among those farmers, support for the president doesn't automatically translate into support for his agriculture policy.

Raybould, running against Fischer in Nebraska, has endorsed a bill introduced by Sens. Jeff Flake, Ariz., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., that would nullify Trump's proposed action on steel and aluminum imports.

"We need more trading partners, not fewer trading partners," she said.

In a statement released after last week's White House meeting, Fischer said she told Trump "how critical it is that we work together to protect markets" both domestically and internationally.

These issues are "causing anxiety and uncertainty" among her constituents, she said.