MORGAN, Minn. – Democrats and Republicans alike who are running in this year’s U.S. Senate special election all raised concerns Tuesday at the Farmfest agricultural expo about effects on Minnesota’s farming economy from the trade policies of the Trump administration.
Five candidates participated in the morning forum at the annual event near Redwood Falls. The three DFLers and two Republican candidates expressed worry about lower commodity prices, and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said President Donald Trump’s proposal to offset losses with $12 billion in emergency assistance to farmers is not a long-term solution.
“A lot of farmers and ranchers say, ‘We want trade, not aid,’ ” said Smith, who is running in next week’s DFL primary against Richard Painter and Nick Leonard. “Of course, in this difficult time, a little bit of help is going to be a little bit of help and people wouldn’t turn it down ... but it doesn’t get at the core issues we have here.”
Painter, once a White House aide to former President George W. Bush who’s now running as a Democrat, hit Trump even harder.
“We have a reckless president who has commenced a reckless trade war,” said Painter, invoking lessons from the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of the 1930s.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Karin Housley, the GOP-endorsed candidate, is running against Bob Anderson, a dental technician from Hastings. The winners of next week’s primaries will face off in November to fill the last two years of the term of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who stepped down in January.
Housley said that, as a senator from the same party as Trump, she’d have a direct line to the White House when concerns arise like those now afflicting farmers.
At the same time, she sought to shift the debate back to moves by the Obama administration that didn’t go over well in rural communities.
Letting the free market work and lessening regulation formed the theme of Housley’s pitch to the agriculture community.
“You had so many regulations placed on you, your health care costs rose, and now you’re feeling it,” Housley said. She said she was disappointed that Congress couldn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act, and said the way to reduce health costs is to open the industry up to the free market.
As heavy rain left puddles in adjacent fields, Housley cracked that “there’s a couple of Waters of the U.S. out there" — a reference to an Obama-era rule unpopular with farmers for extending clean water regulations to very small bodies of water.
Smith highlighted work she’s done in her seven months in the Senate. She called attention to work on the farm bill, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support, and also singled out initiatives where she collaborated with Republican colleagues on efforts to fund rural health outreach and expand mental health services in schools.
Painter called for the DFL to bring farmers back into the fold. He also sought to portray himself as independent-minded, saying that he would stand up to party bosses, not accept money from political action committees, and would stand for America over partisanship. The former Republican lashed out at state DFL Chairman Ken Martin — who recently criticized Painter for switching parties — and said he would not apologize for serving his country.
Meanwhile, Smith said she’d fought hard for rural broadband and renewable energy, and that it’s important to fight efforts to weaken protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. Noting the stress that farmers are under now, she said, “It’s so important that we figure out a way of moving beyond the stigma that still exists around treatment for mental health.”
All the candidates voiced support for funding infrastructure. Painter criticized government spending on the Vikings football stadium, while Housley took a swipe at funding for lightrail, with both saying that money should have been spent on more basic projects like roads and bridges.
Smith said that she’s talked to people all over the state, especially in rural areas, who can’t get their products to market because of a lack of infrastructure.
They also talked up bipartisanship, the current lack of which was a concern among many of the agricultural leaders who asked questions at the forum.
“It’s gotten to be more of a party line out there — everybody stays on one side or the other, not working together,” said Bob Worth of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association.
Candidates conveyed empathy for struggling farmers, but didn’t have detailed plans to address the president’s international trade controversies.
“I still believe the president is leading us in the right direction,” said Anderson, a vocal Trump supporter.
Anderson said he would serve for a maximum of two terms if elected, and highlighted his status outside the political establishment. “I just think people are tired of the status quo,” he said.
Painter and Leonard are the only candidates who support Medicare for All. Leonard stressed his common experiences with struggling Minnesotans.
“We need someone who’s going to represent all Minnesotans, not just the wealthy 1 percent, and I can do that because I’m one of you,” he said.
After the Senate panel, eight congressional candidates from around the state gathered for a similar discussion on farm policy, including U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson and Tom Emmer. As the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Peterson is on the conference committee charged with reaching a final agreement on the farm bill by the end of September. But a sticking point is that House Republicans want to expand work requirements for food stamp recipients, which Democrats and Senate Republicans are resisting.
Peterson’s opponent, Republican David Hughes, criticized him for walking away from negotiations with the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Hughes promised the crowd that he’d never walk away, and said if he were in the political minority he’d work with the majority.
Some candidates for Congress also called for lawmakers to play a stronger role in trade issues.
“What is the role of Congress when it comes to trade?” asked Dan Feehan, a Democrat running in southern Minnesota’s First District. “Right now there is not nearly enough of one.”