NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Marsha Blackburn is supposed to do well among Tennessee’s hog farmers and whiskey makers.
Yet the Republican Senate candidate is struggling to explain President Donald Trump’s nascent trade war to her state’s local business community. Jack Daniel’s whiskey and Jimmy Tosh’s hog farm are among those warning that Trump’s trade policies — and the Republican candidates who support them — are hurting the very people who backed the Republican president in the first place.
That’s forcing outspoken Trump supporters like Blackburn into an uncomfortable position in one of the nation’s top Senate races.
Blackburn has been forced to distance herself from Trump’s trade policies under heavy pressure from local business leaders and her Democratic opponents.
“We fully appreciate that some of these countries have had a trade war against us for years, certainly China would be in that list, and it’s time that somebody really stands up,” Blackburn told The Associated Press when asked about Trump’s trade policies. “But with that said, it does cause us tremendous concern, just grave concern.”
Still, Blackburn opposed a proposal by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that would have given Congress new authority to check the president’s trade moves. She called Corker’s approach “a little bit too broad.”
Instead, Blackburn helped write a letter urging Trump’s commerce secretary to reconsider broad tariffs so as to avoid harm to Tennessee’s economy.
An estimated $1.4 billion in Tennessee exports are threatened by Trump’s trade moves, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Those exports are linked to more than 850,000 jobs in the state related to farming, steel, baked goods, car manufacturing, whiskey and more.
WHY IT MATTERS
The political impact of Trump’s trade policies extends well beyond Tennessee.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently reported that $75 billion in U.S. exports linked to millions of jobs will soon be subject to retaliatory tariffs. Many of the hardest-hit states are those that backed Trump and feature top-tier Senate races in November.
They include Missouri, Indiana, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, just to name a few. Those are states where Republicans hoped to be on offense for the next four months.
But as Tennessee demonstrates, the overwhelmingly negative reaction from local businesses is forcing Republican candidates to defend their party’s president. And every minute they’re doing that, they’re not attacking vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, traditionally a Republican ally, and the conservative Koch network have unleashed sustained campaigns against the tariffs, giving Blackburn and her red-state Republican colleagues little political cover on a sensitive issue. For Republicans, the issue is a major distraction at best, a threat to the party’s Senate majority at worst.
WHAT TO WATCH
It’s unclear what impact, if any, we’ll see from the Trump administration’s announcement this week that it plans to allocate $12 billion to help farmers hurt by the president’s trade policies.
The administration’s proposal include direct assistance for farmers, purchases of excess crops and trade promotion activities aimed at building new export markets. While that may lessen the economic impact on Tennessee farmers — and there are many affected — it’s unlikely to offer much relief to local whiskey companies, car manufacturers and appliance makers who are feeling the pain as well.
In fact, Trump on Tuesday declared “tariffs are the greatest” and threatened to impose additional penalties on U.S. trading partners.
That’s after he already imposed a 25 percent tax on $34 billion worth of Chinese imports, prompting China to retaliate with taxes on an equal amount of U.S. products, including soybeans, electric cars and pork. The administration has also taxed steel and aluminum imports from allies such as Canada and Mexico, leading to retaliation against American-made products such as blue jeans, motorcycles and whiskey.
Blackburn’s path to the Senate was always going to be difficult, even in a state that backed Trump by 26 percentage points less than two years ago.
In Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen, she’s up against a popular former two-term governor who’s aligned with the moderate wing of the party. Corker, the outgoing Republican incumbent, has called Bredesen his friend and said he wouldn’t campaign against him.
Bredesen is betting big that he can use the trade debate to highlight his own independence while attacking Blackburn’s loyalty to the president.
“She clearly is very loath to do anything contrary to what the Trump playbook is,” Bredesen told the AP.
Republicans have an overwhelming advantage in the fight for the Senate majority this fall given that Democrats are defending 10 seats in states Trump carried in 2016. Democrats have legitimate pickup opportunities in just three states.
But if Bredesen can flip a Republican seat in Tennessee, he gives Democrats a path, albeit an incredibly narrow one, to a Senate takeover.