Why tariffs and a trade war could loom large in Georgia elections

Some Georgia businesses say they’re already feeling pinched by President Donald Trump’s tariffs, which include a 25 percent duty on imported steel and 10 percent tax on aluminum. Those moves prompted retaliatory tariffs on a bevy of American goods from abroad, many that pass through the Port of Savannah. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM .

Some Georgia businesses say they’re already feeling pinched by President Donald Trump’s tariffs, which include a 25 percent duty on imported steel and 10 percent tax on aluminum. Those moves prompted retaliatory tariffs on a bevy of American goods from abroad, many that pass through the Port of Savannah. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM .

President Donald Trump’s threats of an escalating trade battle with China, Canada and other U.S. allies has added a wild card element to Georgia’s midterm campaigns, as Democrats pounce on the new tariffs to pummel Republicans who are tied to the White House’s agenda.

Democrat Stacey Abrams has seized on the issue as part of a broader attempt to steer the focus of the election for governor toward her economic platform, salting her stops in rural manufacturing hubs with fresh warnings about Trump’s trade policies.

And some down-ticket candidates have indicated they plan to join the chorus of criticism, hoping it helps give them a new line of attack against GOP incumbents who are defending the plan — or diplomatically trying to keep their distance.

Some Republicans, wary of putting any daylight between themselves and Trump, have largely stood by the president. Brian Kemp, the GOP nominee for governor, said he supports whatever decision the president makes on delicate trade negotiations.

Others such as U.S. Reps. Karen Handel and Drew Ferguson have urged the administration to change course on specific tariffs without criticizing the president directly. And U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has taken some of the most aggressive steps against the new duties, signing onto two bipartisan bills that would block them.

“It’s just not a good way to do business,” the Republican said Wednesday. “I think it hurts expansion, it hurts new investment and it just impacts the business climate negatively for those things that have a lot of steel and aluminum components, which is most everything.”

It's a fluid situation, with Trump warning Wednesday that he could boost a proposed tariff rate from 10 percent to 25 percent on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods. China responded Friday with its own threat of tariffs targeting $60 billion in U.S. goods.

Some Georgia businesses say they’re already feeling pinched by Trump's earlier tariff moves, which include a 25 percent duty on imported steel and 10 percent tax on aluminum. They prompted retaliatory tariffs from abroad on a bevy of American goods. Others have reported little direct impact so far.

The tariffs have led to major heartburn in Georgia's booming but metal-reliant auto and beverage sectors, with blue chip companies such as Coca-Cola announcing price increases on their products.

The retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural exports have also created significant uncertainty among farmers, even after the Trump administration announced a new $12 billion federal subsidy program designed to provide short-term relief.

As some countries fight back with targeted tariffs on items such as peanut butter, bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, candidates are bracing for the impact. It could take months for many consumers to feel the full fallout of the tariffs, and Democrats are betting that when they do they’ll want to exact revenge at the ballot box this fall.


That’s one reason why Abrams highlighted the tariffs at a campaign stop this week in Murray County, a deep-red bastion of 40,000 people that struggles with a declining population and a sputtering local economy. About 1 in 5 residents here lives below the poverty line.

It's also the home to a sprawling new inland port that's soon to be completed. When it's done, it's set to bring dozens of jobs, keep thousands of tractor-trailers away from Atlanta highways and serve, it's hoped, as a magnet for more manufacturing plants.

Abrams, flanked by local Democrats, warned that the tit-for-tat tariffs could threaten that promise. She called them a “terrible idea that is harming our investment in this inland port in Chatsworth,” along with the bustling port across the state in Savannah.

“It’s unfortunate and very wrongheaded that our own government is creating a problem for business to operate in the United States,” she said. “And I would absolutely stand against any leader who would say that it’s a good thing to cripple Georgia jobs by imposing tariffs and starting a trade war.”

Kemp earned Trump’s endorsement in July in part by emphasizing his loyalty to the president, and he stuck to that tack when asked about the potential fallout of a trade war.

The secretary of state called Trump a "successful deal maker" who has surrounded himself with shrewd negotiators including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor whose department designed the new aid program for farmers. He's confident, he added, that Trump and his team "will broker smart deals that spur economic growth."

State leaders have little say over international trade issues, and Gov. Nathan Deal has largely avoided the topic, aside from saying the U.S. generally has lower tariffs than most other nations. Abrams, however, said a different approach could send a message to the White House.

“There’s very little we can do other than to call attention to those decisions,” Abrams said. “My issue is that the silence of Georgia leaders — or at worst, the complicity — says that we think this is a good idea. And part of being a good leader is standing up to those on your side of the aisle.”

‘More equitable trade’

In battleground Senate contests in North Dakota and Tennessee, Democrats have cast the tariffs as a drag on jobs and local economies. And leaders of conservative groups, such as the Koch brothers’ vast political network, have warned of an economic backlash that could harm business interests.

Republicans have countered with a range of messages. Some have backed the president. A few free-trade Republicans have sought to sidestep the debate entirely. A bigger group has aimed to create some distance between itself and the president’s trade strategy while also voicing support for his underlying goal: getting trade partners such as China to the negotiating table.

“I support President Trump’s goal to renegotiate agreements with our trading partners and champion the ‘America first’ strategy, so that our farmers, businesses and workers have a level playing field,” Handel said shortly after the steel and aluminum tariffs were imposed in May.

But the Roswell Republican added that the tariffs and the “inevitable” retaliatory actions they would prompt from abroad “will hurt working Americans, negatively affect our economy and do not further the goal of fostering more equitable trade.”

The issue has yet to become a major point of contention in Handel’s re-election battle or other suburban Atlanta congressional races. But challengers have vowed to pounce in the lead-up to the November general election, especially if consumers begin feeling more pain as a result of Trump’s actions.

Handel’s opponent, Democrat Lucy McBath, has largely focused her campaign on health care and gun control, but on the trail she’s promised to “bring stability to our foreign policy and support international trade that is free, fair to American workers, and protects environmental and labor standards.”

Some down-ticket candidates see the tariffs as an opening, too. Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, called the new duties “indefensible” — and pointed out several Georgia conservatives who also opposed them.

Her November opponent, Republican Geoff Duncan, said he agrees with Trump that all tariffs should eventually be eliminated, but he criticized Democrats for supporting a “status quo which is very unfair to Georgia’s workers and farmers.”

In Chatsworth, Democrats are optimistic their trade message will resonate. Elizabeth Gould, a local Democratic activist, said the tariffs will surely backfire on Republicans once “voters here feel it.” Others have picked up on the same message.

“I’m hearing from folks that the tariffs are dangerous, and even Republicans are worried they harm us,” said Michael Morgan, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate in northwest Georgia. “If something harms the state, it’s the duty of our leaders to say so.”

2018 campaign

It's a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will keep the spotlight on the candidates and the issues. Look for more as the campaigns heat up at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.