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Trade War Draws Lines In Congress


President Trump's trade fights with China, Canada and Europe have put some members of Congress in a tough spot. Do they stand with American steelworkers, whose mills might benefit from newly imposed tariffs, or soybean farmers, whose exports are at risk in a trade war? Brian Mackey of Illinois Public Radio reports from the southern part of that state.

BRIAN MACKEY, BYLINE: Illinois' 12th Congressional District has plenty of potential winners and losers in a trade war. Many steelworkers here are back on the job for the first time in years. Farmers, meanwhile, are watching prices drop under threat of retaliatory tariffs. It's two different parts of the economy, two different ideas about trade, concentrated in one congressional district. But is it changing anyone's votes? Let's start with the steelworkers. They've got a self-styled champion in the district's Republican congressman, Mike Bost. And in February, he took their plight to the White House.



MIKE BOST: Yeah, Mr. President, let me tell you that 2,800 people were laid off in my district in 2015 in a steel plant that's been operating for over a hundred years.

MACKEY: Trump soon announced tariffs, and about a week later, U.S. Steel said it was restarting one of the big furnaces at its Granite City Works. Since then, 800 steelworkers are being called back. Dan Simmons is president of the United Steelworkers Local in Granite City.

DAN SIMMONS: People there have been saying, hey, you might start a trade war. Well, we've been in a trade war. We've been losing. That's what we've been doing.

MACKEY: Simmons credits officials like Bost for supporting the union's trade case. But it wasn't enough for them to endorse Bost for re-election. Instead, Simmons says they're going with a Democrat, local prosecutor Brendan Kelly, because in addition to supporting the tariffs, Kelly is a backer of union rights.

SIMMONS: We're kind of that you're either with us or you're not. And, you know, it's kind of hard to pick halfway friends, you know?

MACKEY: But steelworkers are just some of Bost's constituents. Head southeast from Granite City, and it doesn't take long to hit the farmland that makes up the majority of his district. Twelve hundred acres of it are worked by Chris Otten, his dad, brother and uncle. They grow corn, soybeans and other crops.

CHRIS OTTEN: So essentially, you kind of look around you. We see, like, the alfalfa here on both sides. We actually raise alfalfa and sell it to horse farms. Not a lot of guys do that anymore, but we still do mostly I think 'cause Dad hates having corn on both sides of the house 'cause he can't see what's going on.

MACKEY: Through hourly alerts on his iPhone, Otten has watched the price of soybeans drop as China threatened more tariffs. He's not panicking. Otten credits his patience to the influence of his father, who survived the '80s farm crisis.

OTTEN: When you look at, you know, the current thing, those guys are not the guys that are worried. I guess I've learned that from him because they've lived through it. Younger guys like a bunch of my friends are very concerned because we don't have anything behind us yet. We're just in debt and hoping that we're going to make the payments.

MACKEY: Most people are not single-issue voters, and Otten is no exception. He says he doesn't identify with either party. And while he voted for President Trump, he also voted for the incumbent Democrat who held the 12th District seat until Bost won it in the last midterm election. Otten's attitude toward incumbents is if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And he says Bost has been responsive - even came to visit the farm not long ago.

OTTEN: I agree with what they're trying to do trying to fix it - just got to be careful who you step on when you do. So I guess we'll wait and see what happens.

MACKEY: For now, voters like Otten and the steelworkers are sticking with their preferred candidates, but a big question for both Democrats and Republicans is whether voters will change their minds about either party as the tariffs begin to bite on the American economy. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mackey in Granite City, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mackey