Since I’ve long followed U.S. trade policy, since it’s long been one of President Trump’s signature issues, and since for months the President’s tariffs had been widely described as a major danger to the coalition that carried him and other Republicans to victory in 2016, I thought one of the most useful post-midterms exercises I could conduct would be to see if these analyses held up. The verdict: Anything but.
At the heart of this narrative were America’s farmers, and especially its soybean growers. In brief, the Trump China tariffs sparked retaliatory Chinese levies on a wide range of U.S. exports, including soybeans. Soybeans had become the nation’s leading agricultural export to China, and China exports represented a large share of total American soybean production. And since those soybean exports to the People’s Republic were endangered (and have in fact plummeted), the soybean farmers (along with the rest of U.S. agriculture, since its exports were threatened by various foreign retaliatory tariffs, too) were likely to take their anger out on Republican candidates for the House and Senate this year, and reward Democrats with significant wins. (See here, here, and here for some examples.)
Last night’s midterm results, however, make clear that nothing of the kind happened. To see how off-base the “Republican Soy-Mageddon” (“Soy-Pocalypse”?) predictions were, let’s first look at the returns from the Top Twenty districts in the House of Representatives in terms of total agricultural output. Republicans held sixteen and Democrats four when the evening began.
When it ended, the number of those seats flipped by the Democrats (i.e., where one of their candidates beat a Republican incumbent) totaled one: the First District of Iowa. The other three Democratic victories were scored by Democratic incumbents.
Republicans flipped none of these 20 seats. But they held on to 15. Moreover, three of these seats were open seats – that is, a Republican incumbent had retired. So all else equal, the Democratic candidate’s chances of winning were increased.
The race for the twentieth seat on this list – Minnesota’s First District – was too close to call at the time of this writing. It’s an open seat also, but the previous incumbent was a Democrat. So no sign of any blue wave, or any notable Democratic strength in this group of Districts, whatever.
But what about the soybeans-dominated Districts? The results from this Top Twenty show nothing like a Republican Soy-Mageddon, either.
During the previous Congressional session, Republicans held 16 of these seats as well, and the Democrats four. The Democrats flipped two of these Districts – that First in Iowa, along with that state’s Third. The Democrats’ four other victories in this group were by incumbents.
The Republicans, again, didn’t flip any Democratic soybeans seats. But they held onto 15 of their original 16 seats. In addition, three of those seats were open, so again, the GOP candidates’ advantage was smaller than it would have been had the incumbent run. The election in the twentieth District in this soybeans group – Minnesota’s First – is that still-undecided race.
Again no Soy-Mageddon for Republicans.
These developments won’t come as a major surprise to careful news buffs. Several reports (see, e.g., here, here, and here) have been published in recent weeks containing evidence that, however worried they were about their own individual prospects, many American farmers continued to support Mr. Trump – and in principle even his efforts to use pressure to extract more equitable terms of trade from China and other foreign economies. But you had to be quite the careful news buff.
At the same time, last night’s results by no means give Mr. Trump a free pass on trade policy from American agriculture. Before too long, unless his efforts start delivering results for U.S. farmers, or removing the trade threats they still face, or unless other administration policies open up new opportunities (at home or abroad), their patience could well run out. For now, however, ag is hanging tough with an America First trade approach at the grassroots level. It’s high time that its whiny Inside the Beltway spokespeople start paying attention.