ROCHESTER – During the 4-H alpaca competition at the Olmsted County Fair, dairy farmer Tom Hurley fumed about the damage tariffs inflict on the agricultural economy.
“The best thing politicians can do is get the hell out of agriculture,” said Hurley, 53, of Grand Meadow. Asked if candidates are listening to the concerns of voters like him, his reply was terse: “No.”
Like many farmers in southern Minnesota’s First Congressional District, Hurley backed Donald Trump in 2016. The president beat Democrat Hillary Clinton 53 to 38 percent in this district, which had voted twice for Barack Obama.
But now fallout from Trump’s hard-line trade policies is testing support for the president and defining the First District race to replace U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a DFL candidate for governor. Farmers, particularly soybean growers, have been hurt by retaliatory tariffs imposed by China and other countries after they were hit with U.S. levies on imports such as steel and aluminum.
No top-tier candidates in the district — including Republican primary rivals Jim Hagedorn of Blue Earth and state Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester — unreservedly endorse the tariffs. These misgivings are one way they’re trying to demonstrate that they’re attuned to rural voters’ worries and priorities.
Dan Feehan, the DFL-endorsed candidate, got a lesson in farm woes during a recent visit to John Thormodson’s farm outside Madelia.
For two hours, as Feehan asked questions and listened, Thormodson, 51, who grows soybeans and corn, described this year’s double-whammy: tariffs and June flooding that left parts of some of his fields still submerged.
Already, Thormodson said, tariffs have sliced $1 a bushel off soybean prices. The $12 billion farm bailout plan Trump proposed, he said, might help — if it arrives by December, when he locks in his 2019 plans.
The tariffs will “hurt the machinery dealers,” he said. “It’ll hurt discretionary spending. There will not be as many pickups traded in.” He didn’t vote for Trump, but said that some neighbors who did have told him they now regret it.
“I listen and I get things done,” Nelson said as she knocked on doors one recent late afternoon in St. Charles, looking for votes in the Aug. 14 primary.
She approached a man who was grilling brats for supper and asked, “What might you want to know about me?” He asked about the farm economy. “I’ve been a big supporter of farmers,” she said, mentioning her family’s agricultural roots.
“It’s a challenging time right now,” Nelson added. She brought up the effects of the tariffs on the farm economy but didn’t defend Trump’s stance. The man nodded and said, “It’s extremely tight.”
Nelson says China must be held accountable for its trade practices, but she doesn’t want farmers to take a beating.
Back at the Olmsted County Fair, Hagedorn chatted at the GOP booth in Floral Hall with supporter Jim Schumann, 63, who grows soybeans, corn and peas in Eyota.
Schumann voted reluctantly for Trump, he explained later, but he doesn’t blame the president for the farm economy. It has been dismal for five years, he said. As for Trump, “I really don’t think he even knows his position most of the time. Congress needs to do their job,” he said.
Hagedorn, who was raised on a grain and livestock farm near Truman, said that Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise to reset trade policies and is using tariffs to nudge other countries into negotiations. “I understand what he’s trying to do,” he said. “There are farmers who will tell you, look, China has been cheating us for 16 years. … Sooner or later we’ve got to address this.”
But asked for his bottom line on the topic, Hagedorn said, “I’m for open markets. I’m for expanding global markets for all our industries, especially agriculture.”
The trade war isn’t the only issue First District candidates are talking about. Hagedorn greeted fairgoers with handshakes and this introduction: “I’m the guy that almost beat Tim Walz the last time.”
In 2016, Hagedorn — the son of a former southern Minnesota congressman — lost to Walz by just 2,548 votes. He immediately began preparing for this year’s campaign, focusing on raising more cash and enhancing his name recognition by attending events in communities large and small. He was endorsed by the GOP.
Hagedorn believes that partnering with Trump is a winning message and doesn’t think voters are turned off by the president’s policies or rhetoric. Trump “has his own style and personality,” he said. “He has a way of negotiating and a way of gaining attention … that he thinks works.”
Nelson used software loaded into her phone to target likely Republican primary voters in St. Charles, and her doorstep conversations provided a glimpse into how she signals her support for Trump.
She told one voter that she’s “a champion of the pro-growth agenda, actually the Make America Great Again agenda.”
To another resident, she said, “I’m also a strong supporter of public safety when it comes to borders.” Asked if that means she supports Trump’s plan for a border wall, she replied, “I’ve been voting on the Make America Great agenda in the state Senate.”
Nelson, who was endorsed last week by the NRA, frequently noted that she’s a small-business owner and former teacher. When Dave Guenther, 87, told her he doesn’t follow politics closely because he pays daily visits his wife, who has Alzheimer’s disease, she switched gears.
“You are a hero,” Nelson told him. “I know exactly what that journey looks like.”
She handed him a postcard to sign, promising to mail it back to remind him to vote. He signed it and thanked her.
Feehan, an Iraq war veteran and former teacher and Pentagon official who lives in North Mankato, is a rookie candidate who said he’s trying to “do politics a little differently.”
His long conversation with Thormodson is part of that strategy. “There’s something different about talking about what you’re for in very simple terms,” he said. “Your job as a candidate is a matter of holding on to your integrity and your authenticity.”
Feehan rejects suggestions that the election will be a referendum on Trump. “It should be a referendum on a Congress that’s dysfunctional,” he said.
Several other Democrats will be on the primary ballot, but Feehan has emerged as the party’s best hope of retaining a seat that’s on the GOP’s national target list. As of June 30, he had raised more money than Hagedorn and Nelson.
Republican Gil Gutknecht, who represented the district from 1995 to 2007, is a Hagedorn supporter who believes the seat will swing back to his party. “For the first time in a long time at the national level we’re actually talking to rural, working-class Americans — and they get it,” he said.
Hurley, the farmer from Grand Meadow, isn’t sure about that. “Politicians don’t need to listen to agriculture,” he said, “because it’s such a small sector of the economy. They don’t get it.”