Donald Trump’s Trade Wars Are Roiling Wisconsin GOP

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R) campaign in Platteville, Wisc. on August 13, 2018. (Cameron Joseph / TPM Media)
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PLATTEVILLE, WI — Mike North, the head of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, is enough of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican to spend his Monday morning at a campaign stop for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R). But when asked about how President Trump’s standing might effect his party this year, he immediately expressed concern over Trump’s ongoing trade wars.

The reality is a change in our marketplace has been discomforting for sure, to say the least. There’s a lot of heartburn about where prices are at right now. So that will be something that we’ll have to work through as we come through fall,” North told TPM at a Walker campaign event at Digman Construction, a small company outside small-town Platteville in the state’s rural southwestern corner.

North’s group is nonpartisan, and has endorsed candidates from both parties in the past. He said he thought most Republican-leaning voters are willing to deal with some short-term economic pain to give Trump some time to figure things out, and doesn’t think it’s fair that others who voted for Trump are now unhappy with him doing what he promised to do.

You don’t send a bull into a china shop and hope for a whole plate at the end,” North said.

But North admitted that plunging dairy prices, which have dropped 4 percent this year partly because of Mexico’s retaliatory tariffs on dairy in the trade wars Trump has kicked off, have put farmers in a tough position.

Are we seeing things that we like in the short term? Obviously, lower prices aren’t anything any farmer wants to see. But we’re all looking at this with a very long-term mindset,” he said.

Wisconsin is one of many midwestern states where Trump’s trade war is roiling local industries, and could boost Democrats’ prospects this fall.

And dairy isn’t the only GOP-leaning industry in the state that’s been shaken by Trump’s trade wars. Wisconsin’s corn and soybean farmers aren’t thrilled either, and one iconic Wisconsin company has taken a hit as well. Harley Davidson’s bottom line risks major damage from Trump’s steel tariffs. When the Milwaukee-based company said it will start making its motorcycles for the European market over there to sidestep fallout from Trump’s trade war, the president responded with a call to boycott:

Walker seemed well aware of the impact Trump’s trade wars might have on his own campaign. He quickly brought up the issue unprompted when talking to TPM after a meet-and-greet with supporters on the final day of his 21-stop bus tour through the state.

As you can imagine, you can hear in particular in rural parts still some concerns about agriculture, obviously more aimed at the national level in terms of where prices are, whether it’s for dairy or for commodities,” he said when asked about where the state’s mood was.

And the avowed Harley rider later brought up the company, while sidestepping a question about whether he was happy with Trump’s attacks on his hometown’s pride.

For me, I want Harley Davidson to succeed here in the state of Wisconsin. And one of the best ways for them to do that … is for the president to succeed in getting no tariffs,” he said. “There’s no tariffs, I’ve talked to Harley before. They want to make not only the bikes they make and sell in America, they want to make as many if not all their bikes here. But they need to have the help to do that.”

Walker said he supported Trump’s end goal of no tariffs between the U.S. and other G-7 countries — but implored the president that it needs to happen “sooner, rather than later.”

At least Walker addressed the question.

“We’ve got to go, we’ve got to go,” Senate candidate Leah Vukmir (R), who appears to be the slight favorite to win her Tuesday primary to face Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), said abruptly as soon as TPM mentioned Harley Davidson during a very brief interview after a rally in Racine with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) Monday afternoon. She hustled away across the parking lot, ignoring the repeated question.

Her primary opponent, former Marine Kevin Nicholson (R), has bear-hugged Trump all campaign as he sought to make hay out of Vukmir’s 2016 criticism of the then-nominee. But even he broke with Trump on this issue on the eve of their primary.

“No, I don’t want to see Harley-Davidson boycotted because I want to see them succeeding and selling into new markets without tariffs and that’s going to be the goal,” Nicholson said Monday on a local radio show.

Baldwin has joined many other Democrats to condemn Trump’s latest volley in the trade war, an issue that could split the GOP-leaning voters from their party this fall and give Democrats a chance for their first good midterm election in the state in a decade.

It’s unclear as of now how much Trump’s trade war will end up impacting GOP-leaning voters in the state. But polls and special elections in the state suggest that Democrats are positioned to bounce back after a rough decade in the state that culminated with Trump carrying Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes in 2016. And there are signs that even some of the state’s most conservative Republicans aren’t thrilled with what the president has wrought.

A lot of people are still in support of what Trump did,” said North. “But maybe they disagree with the tactics he’s taken of late.”

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