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Trade policy rarely tips elections.
But as with many things, 2018 will prove an interesting test of conventional wisdom, especially with tariffs now implemented on more than $350 billion worth of bilateral trade between the United States and China.
While trade is not likely to motivate voters as much as healthcare or immigration, it could influence outcomes in tight congressional races. How tariffs affect election results will depend on economic conditions in local communities and how local leaders across business, government, and civil society discuss and respond to the trade war.
This post explores the dynamics in two congressional districts characterized by significant reliance on trade—Kansas’s 2nd and Minnesota’s 3rd—to illustrate the relationship between national trade policy and local business and civic responses.
Kansas’s 2nd congressional district exemplifies an export-intensive, toss-up race where trade policy may matter. Encompassing most of eastern Kansas, the district is about 40 percent rural, and relies on manufacturing and agriculture exports. This is exactly the type of community that the Chinese government has targeted with retaliatory tariffs. In all but four of the 25 counties that make up the district, the share of exports in retaliatory tariff-affected industries exceeds the national average of 6.1 percent. Ten of the counties have at least twice the national share.
The trade war is not only disrupting Kansas’s exporters, but also making it harder for local manufacturers to import critical materials and components. We talked to one of those businesses, which employs 200 workers in the 2nd district. This firm manufactures industrial machinery in the U.S. by sourcing fabricated steel, machinery motors, brakes, and cylinders from China.
Many of these imports are now subject to 25 percent tariffs, which will harm the profitability of U.S. manufacturing by putting foreign firms—who can effectively import Chinese components at 25 percent lower cost—at a competitive advantage in the North American …