President Trump may have already lost Iowa and the rest of the midwest, but now he risks throwing the Senate into play.
Until last week, Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, was pretty safe, with high approval ratings and an ability to lie low in her re-election bid. Now, she is facing tough questions back home about trade and impeachment that are making her squirm.
Trump’s trade war with China caused John Deere, the largest employer in Iowa, to cut production by 20% and lay off 160 workers in the Quad Cities along the Mississippi River. Crop markets are in disarray as China was the largest consumer of soybeans until that market was shut down.
Farmers have been furious with Trump for waiving ethanol blending requirements, which the EPA has tried to smooth over with vague promises for the corn-based fuel. But the trust has been breached, and mothballed ethanol plants in north-west Iowa are unlikely to fire up again.
Farmers are anxious. So are rural communities, and so are union workers along the rivers. And it’s not just Iowa. It’s Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, too. Polls show Trump is tanking across those key swing states.
It doesn’t help when the secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, went to Wisconsin, where independent dairy farmers are desperate in the face of consolidation, and laid down this cow chip: “In America, the big get bigger and the small get out.”
It’s tough for Senator Ernst to defend all that.
She showed up for a town hall meeting in Templeton, Iowa, a tiny burg in conservative western Iowa, as the Senate recessed and the House probed impeachment.
She told the crowd she hoped the trade war will cease, that whistleblowers deserve protection, that corruption must be investigated wherever it is, and that we need to move on to the next question.
If she votes for evicting Trump she could be seen as a maverick, like Grassley was as a younger man
That tack, hewing to the state’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, will serve Ernst for now in a state that traditionally expects honesty first from its politicians. Eventually, she will be asked to vote on impeachment. She will not be able to duck that question.
If she votes for evicting Trump she could be seen as a maverick, like Grassley was as a younger man. Independent voters – the biggest Iowa bloc – like honest mavericks. If she votes with Trump, Ernst risks losing re-election to one of four Democrats seeking the nomination in a primary next June.
The trade war with China will not be resolved anytime soon. When Trump called on the Chinese to investigate his rivals, no doubt Beijing smiled as it continues to watch him twist. The Chinese do not like being told how much power Trump has over them.
That means continued stress on the midwest manufacturing sector. Harder times for Harley-Davidson in Wisconsin, striking GM workers in Michigan, unemployed Ohio auto workers, and steel forges cooling around Pennsylvania.
Ethanol’s demand problems will not be sorted out before the next election. That is a structural problem over which Trump has little control (too much production, as always, in a world awash in oil) but will take all the blame because he favored big oil over corn. Ethanol is the third rail of Iowa politics, and Trump already stepped on it. Perdue compounded the problem by joking about whining farmers – in front of wheat growers.
That spells real trouble for Ernst. In 1974, Berkley Bedell and Tom Harkin were swept into Congress in the Watergate wave as populist Democrats from deeply Republican western Iowa. Their performance helped John Culver win his US Senate seat. Voters were repulsed by President Richard Nixon’s lies and his contempt for Congress. Two years later, they elected Jimmy Carter president after he campaigned on honesty and ethanol. Likewise, voters in 2018 elected Democrats to Congress from across the midwest – and they nearly unseated Trump proxy Representative Steve King, a Republican from north-west Iowa who represents Templeton.
The people around Templeton are restless with politicians these days. It’s not easy making it go at $18 per hour, and healthcare premiums last year shot up 20% or more. Rural hospitals are threatened. The corn is not looking that great. The markets stink. Farmers probably will lose money for an unlucky seventh year in a row. And there is a proven liar in the Oval Office calling Kyiv to ask if they can slime his political rivals, plus Robert Mueller.
This is a cauldron for Ernst. She stood by Trump this long, but might fall by him if articles of impeachment land in the Senate over the holiday season. Even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, hasn’t figured out a way to not bring this festering mess to the floor. It could be his undoing, as well.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing. He is author of the book Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper (Viking 2018)