Rural Iowans ponder Trump alternatives as China trade war drags on

By Tom Polansek

DUBUQUE, Iowa (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg asked a crowd of hot and sticky supporters packed into an Iowa brewery this weekend whether the United States has a plan to win the ongoing trade war with China.

“Nooo,” was 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. U.S. farmers, who helped carry Trump to his surprise 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 Chinese 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, Iowa, 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 in Dubuque on Saturday with his wife, a Democrat. Murray said he is open to voting for a Democratic candidate.

“A lot of the farmers voted for Trump. Now they’re feeling it,” said Murray, who lives near the Mississippi River, a key 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.

Other Democratic candidates including Joe Biden, who leads primary polls, have also criticized Trump’s trade policies.

Farmers worry that a deal to end the trade war would take much longer than expected after Trump on May 9 increased tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. China quickly raised tariffs on $60 billion of U.S. goods in response.

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 U.S. 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, Iowa.

SOY FARMERS SUCKING AIR

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 is a Republican 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.

“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 dislike Democrats could not vote at all during the next election, Leeds said.

$20 BILLION IN AID

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 of that so far.

Charmayne McMurray, who raised crops and livestock for more than a quarter century in Andrew, Iowa, 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.

Dubuque County flipped from supporting Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said Trump launched the trade war without a strategy of how to win it. The dispute is just one problem that could prompt farmers to consider Democratic candidates in 2020, he said.

Other threats include consolidation among commodity buyers and changes in climate that are making it more difficult to produce crops, Buttigieg told reporters.

“I’ve certainly talked to a lot of farmers who are getting killed and in a lot of different ways,” he said. “All of these things I think are a good moment for Democrats to remind rural America why we have a better message for them than the current president, who I think has been taking them for granted.”

(Reporting by Tom Polansek; Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Chris Reese)