State Politics

Could Trump's tariffs accidentally help the NC Democratic Party?

President Donald Trump, second from right, participates in a meeting with leaders of the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 1, 2018.
President Donald Trump, second from right, participates in a meeting with leaders of the steel and aluminum industries at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 1, 2018. TNS

The North Carolina Democratic Party has ramped up efforts to win over rural voters, and it might have found an unlikely ally — Republican President Donald Trump.

Trump put the country on a path toward a trade war with China earlier this year when he announced he wanted to impose tariffs on steel that would make Chinese-produced steel more expensive. The Chinese government has now hit back with a number of proposed tariffs targeted at American products.

And China's retaliatory tariffs were not-so-subtly aimed at hurting the economies of states that supported Trump in 2016, including North Carolina.

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Trump has decried what he says are unfair Chinese trade practices. He has said, on Twitter, that "trade wars are good, and easy to win." However, on Monday he acknowledged that American farmers could be harmed. He framed it as a patriotic sacrifice.

"Our farmers are great patriots," Trump said. "They understand what they're doing for this country. And we'll make it up to them."

But in North Carolina, Democratic leaders said farmers shouldn't have to sacrifice for a trade war that, they said, Trump started for purely political reasons.

“President Trump and North Carolina Republicans have put North Carolina farmers directly in the cross hairs of a dangerous and escalating trade war," NC Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said at a press conference. "Their policies will make North Carolina agricultural products cost more, and this will hurt farmers and consumers and all of rural North Carolina."

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There are about 48,000 farms in the state.

Goodwin said he and other party leaders have been on a "listening tour" of rural areas, and they keep hearing about the tariffs.

“This topic — the Trump trade war and reluctance of Republicans to stand up for our state and for our farmers and for our families — this is one of the paramount issues," Goodwin said.

But the leadership of the NC Republican Party shot back, saying their Democratic rivals have a long way to go to win the trust of rural voters.

While Democrats used to have a large base of support in rural North Carolina, the party's support has concentrated more in the state's urban areas in recent years.

"It is about time that the Democratic Party began paying attention to rural North Carolina," NC GOP Vice President Michelle Nix said in a written statement. "Contrary to their election rhetoric, the Democratic Party – led by Rep. Darren Jackson and Sen. Dan Blue — continually voted against policies meant to help bring prosperity to rural North Carolina."

Nix also defended Trump's tariff proposals, despite the harm to farmers that even Trump acknowledged might happen.

"President Trump's trade policies all have one overarching goal in mind: putting America first," she said.

If the plans go forward, Chinese tariffs on tobacco, soybeans, corn and pork could endanger millions of dollars in sales for North Carolina farmers.

Some conservative groups and politicians have come out in opposition to the tariffs, including Americans for Prosperity. And North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem, said last week he opposes tariffs but does agree with Trump that China needs to be punished for unfair trade actions.

Speaking in Durham last Wednesday, Burr said he usually likes fair trade, but "sometimes you have to use a different tactic, and I think clearly that is what the president is doing."

'Farmers today are scared to death'

North Carolina grows half the tobacco in the United States, and more hogs than all but one other state. After tobacco, soybeans and corn are North Carolina's most lucrative crops. Farmers here grew nearly $2 billion worth of those three crops last year.

For pork and tobacco especially, the Chinese market is hugely popular among North Carolina farmers. There are more smokers in China than there are people in the United States, and China's government-owned cigarette company buys about a fifth of North Carolina's tobacco crop every year.

Bob Etheridge, a former Democratic congressman from Harnett County, said Monday that North Carolina farmers sold more than $250 million worth of tobacco and pork to China last year.

“Farmers today are scared to death," he said. "They’re frightened because they depend on predictability from their government. ... And what are we getting? This is what we’re getting from Washington today. Chaos. This administration continues to force chaos and confusion on people.”

Although agriculture is North Carolina's largest industry, only a small percentage of the people here are farmers. That hasn't stopped politicians like Etheridge and Goodwin from trying to convince them that it's the Democratic Party that has their best interests at heart.

That could be an uphill battle. The typical North Carolina farmer fits the bill of a typical Trump voter.

According to statistics from the USDA, about 85 percent of North Carolina's farmers are white, and 87 percent are men. On average they're 59 years old, and they tend to live in rural areas.

But the Democrats who spoke Monday said they have ideas to help rural areas, like a program Gov. Roy Cooper started called Hometown Strong. Its goal is to help rural areas get grants and other funding to build roads, expand high-speed internet and train people for skilled jobs.

And as they talk to rural voters about what ideas Democrats have, they'll also be talking about Trump's ideas.

“Farmers in Eastern North Carolina, and across this country, are hanging on by their fingernails in some cases," Etheridge said. "And what is the president doing? He’s cutting off their fingernails."

Brian Murphy of McClatchy DC contributed to this report.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran