By Justin Worland / Bethany, Mo.
October 19, 2018

Doug Fish is quick to explain all the ways President Trump’s trade war is hurting his business and his community.

Fish, the president and CEO of BTC Bank, a community bank in Bethany, Mo., says that low commodity prices depressed by trade tensions with China affect 95% of his customers directly and the remaining 5% indirectly. If those customers don’t turn a profit, they won’t be able to pay back the money they owe BTC.

But like many in the heartland, Fish has a nuanced view about how the issue reflects on the President and his political allies. Yes, Fish wants the trade tensions to ease. But he also says farming communities are willing to suffer the short-term cost of Trump’s trade war if it means a better deal for the U.S. in the long term.

“We should help our neighbors,” Fish explains during an Aug. 31 interview in his Bethany office. “The trade situation is bad for my business, but as an American I fully understand that these are issues that need to be addressed.”

The Trump administration’s trade agenda has challenged much of rural America, hammering local businesses and making commodities less competitive on the global market. Democrats have pounced on the issue in key races, positioning the party as a proponent of free trade. But in contested congressional contests, it remains unclear whether that message will be enough to sway the votes of the people facing the steepest trade challenges.

Take Missouri. Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill has made trade a cornerstone of her campaign pitch. At public appearances across the state, she speaks at length about how tariffs affect the local economy. “We’re driving, frankly, our customers into the arms of our foreign competitors,” McCaskill tells TIME. “Even if the tariffs go away, there’s going to be a hangover.”

The data suggests this should be a winning issue for McCaskill. A September NBC News-Marist survey of Missouri found that 45% of likely voters in the state disapprove of Trump’s trade agenda, compared to 28% who support it. And across Missouri, businesses leaders — from beer brewers to soybean farmers — say they are worried about the issue. “If you look in the agro-business area, just the threat of a trade war and tariffs has created instability,” says Joe Reardon, president of the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “That instability has a real effect on the marketplace.”

But it’s not clear how much of a political bump McCaskill is getting from her trade message. The Missouri Senate race is effectively a dead heat, according to polls. In rural communities, many voters say they are willing to wait as Trump reworks America’s trade relationships in an effort to benefit the U.S. economy. Farmers are accustomed to a cyclical business and say they can handle a few months of uncertainty. More than anything, locals say, they want to give Trump the time to live up to his reputation as the consummate dealmaker. Many also point to the new NAFTA deal, which Trump has branded the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement, as a sign that Trump will eventually be able to reach a truce with China.

That confidence is good news for Missouri’s Josh Hawley, the state attorney general turned Republican Senate candidate, who has latched himself to the President. “He’s right to recognize that we’re in a trade war and it’s a trade war that he didn’t start,” Hawley tells TIME of Trump. “We’re not going to win by doing nothing.”

But the slack rural voters are giving Trump may not last forever. Farmers could experience a fast change of heart if the tensions drag into the next growing season, when they will need to decide which products to plant. Without trade certainty, the price farmers can get on the open market as they begin to negotiate new contracts will be a fraction of the prices they got in recent years. “We have to eat too,” says Fish. “There’s probably a feeling in agriculture of support, in anticipation of something good for the entire country. But that may change.”

One challenge for Democrats is that most of the pain a trade war can produce hasn’t been felt yet. Around 55% of Missouri voters say they haven’t yet experienced or heard about the effects of Trump’s trade policy, according to a September CBS News poll. (Nearly 30% say they have been hurt by the trade war).

But there’s a deeper question for Democrats like McCaskill, which is whether being on the right side of trade policy would be enough to trump political affiliation. Many of the Americans hardest hit by tariffs are among the most conservative. And in Missouri, they tend to oppose the two-term senator. Republicans link McCaskill to Obama-era regulations, especially the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation known among supporters as the Clean Water Rule and among opponents as the Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS. The Obama-era regulation would have dramatically expanded the EPA’s purview protecting rivers and streams. And because those streams cross farms left and right, farmers say it would have been a costly, burdensome regulation. (In reality, McCaskill joined with Republicans on legislation to rework the regulation in 2015 and supported the first step in Trump’s rollback of the regulation last year).

Still, Hawley’s opposition to regulation helped him win a decisive endorsement from the Missouri Farm Bureau, a farmer advocacy group that also sells insurance, and why Trump’s trade agenda hasn’t yet cut into his base. The Missouri Farm Bureau didn’t include any mention of trade when it announced its Hawley endorsement, but it did praise Hawley for suing the EPA over WOTUS.

“Trade is not a winner for Senator McCaskill,” Hawley tells TIME. “She has not stood up for farmers’ property rights, she has not stood up against the regulators and environmentalists. She has not stood up for their right to farm.”

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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