Dem group to attack GOP over Trump trade agenda

A top Democratic opposition research firm is launching a months-long effort ahead of the midterm elections to tie Republican candidates to the impacts of President Donald Trump’s moves on international trade.

American Bridge 21st Century will launch “Trade War Watch” on Thursday, which includes a campaign of digital ads, research and a tailored website to make voters aware of how a tit-for-tat trade conflict with China, the European Union, Mexico and Canada is affecting industries across the United States.

The campaign is the latest sign of how Democrats believe the impacts of Trump’s trade moves on particular industries could resonate with voters in key states. The operatives tasked with leading the campaign believe that the issue will also highlight how GOP leaders have dispensed with long-held Republican views on trade to fall in line with Trump.

“Republican candidates have effectively abandoned the voters they are campaigning to represent — standing by Trump’s disastrous trade war as farmers, manufacturers and small businesses in their communities are hurt,” Amelia Penniman, spokeswoman for American Bridge, said about the campaign. “Trade War Watch will keep a running tab of the casualties of the trade war to make clear to voters that Republicans are not on their side.”

Trump campaigned for president pledging to crack down on unfair trade practices, with China drawing much of his ire. As president, he has attempted to make good on that promise by imposing sizable tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum and cracking down on China’s intellectual property violations, leading the country to respond by imposing tariffs on 128 products ranging from pork, meat and fruit to steel pipes. The European Union, Canada and Mexico have also responded to the US steel and aluminum tariffs levied on them by promising punitive measures targeting billions of dollars in American products.

The trade war effectively started earlier this month, when the United States imposed the first round of tariffs and China responded in kind.

The political impacts of the tariffs are so far unknown, but China has targeted products — like soybeans — that largely come from states relevant in the midterms. Republicans worry that a trade war could wipe away the economic growth under Trump.

“It’s not lost on us,” said a top Republican operative involved in the midterms, “that the trade agenda could turn into a total debacle that would far outweigh the economic benefits of tax reform.”

Sen. Ron Johnson said Wednesday that he has shared some of the trade war concerns with the president.

“I urge you and your trade representatives to understand the plight of businesses struggling during this period of extreme uncertainty and do everything in your power to return certainty and stability to global markets,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

The launch of Trade War Watch comes with two new digital ads — one aimed at Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Josh Hawley and another at Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky — that accuse Republicans of ignoring voters to stand by Trump.

“Trump’s trade war is hurting Missouri,” reads a slate in the ad aimed at Hawley, highlighting stories of how tariffs have hurt farmers and companies in the state that rely on imported steel. “Josh Hawley is choosing the trade war over Missouri families.”

The ad aimed at Barr uses a similar frame but hits the Republican for tariffs on bourbon, a product exclusively produced in Kentucky.

“This is a war that everyone loses in,” Ken Lewis, the owner of New Riff Distillery, says in the ad. “If this continues, this could be the beginning of the end of the bourbon boom.”

Kelli Ford, a spokesperson for the Hawley campaign, responded to the ad by attacking Sen. Claire McCaskill, Hawley’s Democratic opponent.

“Josh has always said we need to see what kind of deal the president will get, but that he’s right to go after trade cheaters, like China, who have built their middle class on the backs of our own,” Ford said. “Claire McCaskill is too busy answering to donors and flying around in her private plane to listen to the concerns of Missouri workers here on the ground.”

CNN has reached out to the Barr campaign for comment.

In a memo announcing the effort, Bradley Beychok, the president of American Bridge 21st Century, argues that Trump’s trade policies are “already hurting voters in key midterm states and districts, and Republican candidates are failing to stand up for their local economies.”

“Now, with Election Day approaching,” Beychok writes, “Republicans are again putting partisan politics over the people they seek to represent.”

Top Republicans and the White House have looked to dismiss fears about trade by suggesting the short-term pain is needed for long-term gain.

“This is short-term and the President hopes to open up a number of different markets,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday, echoing Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who argued earlier this month that the United States is not in a trade war.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday that farmers understand why a crackdown on trade is needed and are willing to take the pain.

“It’s a little bit like weight loss,” Perdue said. “It’s going to be good to get there but it is a little painful in the meantime.”