President Donald Trump heads to Pennsylvania on Monday evening — another battleground state vital to his chances of winning a second term. But Air Force One will touch down in Montoursville for a campaign rally just when his trade war with China is squeezing many of his core supporters there.
Trump has complicated his own quest to reassemble the Electoral College map he cobbled together in 2016 by slapping tariffs on Chinese-made products, according to political strategists, some lawmakers and state officials. The Keystone State is a prime example as China’s retaliatory levies are hitting its manufacturers, farmers and consumers particularly hard.
The former real estate mogul and reality television star had few entrenched positions when he started his presidential campaign, according to Steve Bannon, his former top strategist. But he had one solid belief, Bannon recently said: that China had been taking advantage of America’s trade policies for decades — and he would stop that, if elected.
Ostensibly, the president is going to Pennsylvania to weigh in on a Tuesday special election in the 12th District to replace former Republican Rep. Tom Marino, who resigned in January, shortly after the new Congress began. GOP state Rep. Fred Keller is expected to defeat Democrat Marc Friedenberg, an assistant cybersecurity professor, for this safe Republican north-central Pennsylvania seat. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.
That means when Trump steps onstage at the Montoursville airport’s Energy Aviation Hangar, he will have to reassure voters in deep-red Lycoming County — which backed him over Hillary Clinton by 45 points in 2016 — that any short-term economic pain they feel from his get-tough approach to Beijing will pay off for them down the road.
“We’re having a little squabble with China because we’ve been treated very unfairly for many, many decades — for, actually, a long time,” Trump told reporters last week. “And it should have been handled a long time ago, and it wasn’t. And we’ll handle it now.”
On Friday, Trump again downplayed the trade dispute while blaming China for backing out of a deal his team has said was mostly done. He contended that the Asian giant’s tariffs on U.S. goods means “people are paying a little bit more.”
“But it’s worth it,” he added.
Flashback: Congress has given too much trade authority to the president, Grassley says
Taking a toll
When it comes to the trade war and electoral politics, the bottom line is the president better hope he can “handle it” in a way that prevents further pocket-book problems in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — states he surprisingly won three years ago. After all, he won the state he will visit Monday by a little over 44,000 votes, or 0.7 points.
The Trump administration and Canada announced Friday they had reached an agreement for the U.S. to lift Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs on Canadian products and for Ottawa to end retaliatory duties on U.S. goods. The president later said Mexico was also part of that stand-down pact.
But it is the China tariff tit-for-tat that has conjured worries among Republican and Democratic officials in Pennsylvania. “There’s a frustrating lack of strategy on the part of the administration,” Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday, according to local media reports.
“Pennsylvania, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, denied Hillary Clinton the presidency in 2016,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The Democrats’ most obvious path to winning back the White House in 2020 involves holding Clinton’s states and recapturing these three states, all of which were decided by less than a percentage point.”
“Generally speaking, Trump’s numbers in Pennsylvania have reflected his underwater national approval numbers,” he added.
A Quinnipiac University poll released May 15 suggests an uphill fight there for the president: former Vice President Joe Biden led him by 11 points. Fifty-three percent of those polled in the state preferred the Scranton native known colloquially as “Middle Class Joe,” while 42 percent wanted a second Trump term.
Notably, the Trump 2020 team announced the Montoursville rally after Biden’s camp announced his Saturday campaign kickoff rally in Philadelphia. The former vice president revealed last week that his campaign headquarters will also be in that city.
Dovetailing with other recent polls, the Quinnipiac survey also showed Trump trailing Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and running close with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
“There are many states where the president is vulnerable and few opportunities to win any 2016 blue states. So, the trips to purple states … are justified,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, highlighting a big reason Trump started his 2020 campaigning with stops in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and now Pennsylvania.
“The problem for the president is he is vulnerable to losing many of these Midwestern electoral votes and votes in a few other states,” Bannon said. “Based on midterm results and the growth in the number of Latino voters, Texas, Georgia and Arizona are shaky for Trump — and they have a total of 65 electoral votes.”
Those polls and the effects of his trade policies on voters in Pennsylvania and other manufacturing- and farming-heavy states are why some Republican lawmakers, including the Keystone State’s junior senator, Patrick J. Toomey, have raised concerns and urged the president to alter course.
“A lot of those folks are making consumer goods. And the price of the consumer goods goes up if the price of the inputs goes up,” Toomey told Philadelphia public radio station WHYY. “So it may not be quite as obvious to the consumer why the dishwasher or the washing machine or some other product that uses a lot of steel, why that price is higher than they used to be.
“But it’s real,” added Toomey, who is pushing a bill to clamp down on Trump’s trade powers, including by giving Congress a final say on all trade actions taken from the Oval Office over the last four years.
“And it’s costing consumers money.”