Politics & Government

Trump tariffs put Kentucky Republicans in a political bind

Republican voters in Rep. James Comer’s conservative Kentucky district are staunch fans of President Donald Trump, unfazed by his seeming coziness with Russian president Vladimir Putin. But there is a limit to the love: Trump’s tariffs.

“Most people have confidence in the president, most people think the president is doing what he said he would do, trying to stand up to China,” the Kentucky Republican said. “But if it goes bad, there will be a lot of people with questions.”

In Kentucky, the tariffs stand to touch almost every big industry. And that means that Republicans, particularly those in tough races such as Rep. Andy Barr, are under pressure to show they’re doing something about them.

“We have a huge aluminum presence, we have a huge automotive presence. Bourbon, soybeans and tobacco, all these have been negatively affected by the talk of tariffs,” Comer explained.

The delegation members have made sure they’ve positioned themselves as skeptics, though they’ve resisted calls to break more dramatically with Trump.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has rejected calls for legislation to counter Trump, saying the president would likely not sign it, nevertheless recently voted to challenge the tariff policy by voting in favor of a non-binding resolution.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who has called tariffs “a tax on the consumer,” also voted in favor of the largely symbolic resolution calling on Trump to secure Congress’s approval before citing national security as a reason for imposing tariffs.

Comer has pigeonholed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, he’s appealed to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and even Trump. He’s signed a letter to Ross along with 148 other members of Congress, warning that U.S. tariffs and retaliatory strikes from other countries, could “undermine our economic security.”

But Republicans remain largely impotent, facing a mercurial president who follows his own counsel and Republican leadership in the House and Senate which has been unwilling to take up legislation that would curb Trump’s trade authority.

Perhaps nowhere in the state is the predicament more precarious than for Barr, a Republican who is facing a competitive, nationally-watched challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot.

A liberal outside group has launched “Trade War Watch” to link Republicans with any unfavorable news about tariffs, and Barr was among the first targeted. American Bridge posted a 45-second digital ad that features an interview with Barr where he says “We in Congress applaud the president for taking a hard line,” followed by news clips of bourbon distillers decrying the tariffs.

McGrath has assailed Republicans for the tariffs and her campaign manager Mark Nickolas called Barr an “ineffective cog in the Republican machine.”

Barr, Nickolas said, “expresses his ‘concern,’ it’s about as meaningful as ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a shooting. It’s not leadership.”

The congressman rejects suggestions he hasn’t spoken up.

Barr, who also signed the letter to Ross, has questioned Ross and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin about the administration’s plans. He says he’s set up meetings between the bourbon industry and vice president Mike Pence. He’s a co-sponsor of legislation that would require Congress to vote on executive trade actions within 90 days. He quizzed Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell, who has no role in the tariffs but who told lawmakers that a “more protectionist economy is less competitive, less productive.”

We have asked the tough questions, both in public and in private meetings and I have been 110 percent in advocacy for my district on this issue,” Barr said in an interview. “The ad is totally misleading and not reflect the truth, which is a record of advocacy for the district and for free trade and against tariffs.”

Barr said he’s in a better position to influence the White House because he’s been a strong supporter of the administration’s efforts to roll back regulations and to pass tax cuts.

“The argument I’ve made to the administration is, ‘Let’s not let trade policy erase or mitigate the benefits of the fiscal policy that they’ve led on,’ ” said Barr.

Barr said he supports the administration’s trade objective, but is worried about the execution.

Barr said he’s confident that his effort is recognized back in the district: “Those who know my work know,” he said. The president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, which has a plant and 8,000 employees in Barr’s district, in a Friday Herald-Leader opinion piece cited what she said was Barr’s support for ending the tariffs.

“Congress must oppose this misguided idea and apply the brakes to auto tariffs,” wrote Susan Elkington. “They would hurt our plant and our state.”

A recent poll suggested the tariffs could be more harmful for Republicans such as Barr in suburban districts that Democrats are eyeing as they hope to regain control of the House. The Pew Research Center survey found nearly half — or 49 percent — of adults say tariffs between the U.S. and its trading partners will be bad for the country.

But the survey, conducted July 11-15 among 1,007 adults, also found attitudes deeply polarized. About 73 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say tariffs will be good for the U.S. Roughly the same share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say increased tariffs will be bad for the U.S.

McConnell may be pressed to go further.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and Doug Jones, D-Alabama, plan legislation aimed at blocking Trump’s tariffs on vehicles and components imported into the country.

And Senate Finance Committee chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote a letter to Trump, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, warning that senators are “increasingly considering legislation” to curb the president’s trade authority and that he is sympathetic to their efforts.

“I strongly urge you to reconsider the reckless guidance you have received on trade policy from some of your advisers,” Hatch wrote in the letter, which McClatchy obtained.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark