The Democratic National Committee is going on offense against President Donald Trump’s trade record, hoping that a new television ad campaign and a series of focused events headlined by top Democrats will persuade voters who backed Trump in 2016 to reject him four years later.
The committee is hoping the focused effort – which will include events led by former Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren – will help them in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three key battleground states where farming and manufacturing are major industries. Top committee aides tell CNN they see trade, and the impact of Trump’s trade war with China, as a significant issue headed into November and one where concerted investment would pay off.
A key reason for that focus is that the Trump administration continues to drive a trade-centric message. The President tweeted on Monday night that the “China Trade Deal is fully intact” after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said that trade deal was “over.” Navarro’s comment sent stock futures tumbling. Navarro has since walked back his comments.
Trump, in an attempt to turn a weakness into an attack line, has also looked to turn China policy into a way to slam Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Though Trump himself has said glowing things about Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump and other Republicans hitting the former vice president for ties to Chinese leadership. The Republican strategy has become more prevalent during the worldwide spread of coronavirus, the outbreak of which began in China.
The clearest sign of this investment is a new television ad, which will run on cable and on local media in Pennsylvania, that casts Trump as overmatched by China on trade, arguing that the President has not only not lived up to his trade promises, but that rhetoric has directly led to farm bankruptcies and a manufacturing recession.
“Trump said he would get tough on China,” a narrator says on the ad. “He didn’t get tough, he got played.”
The ad, which will also run digitally in Michigan and Wisconsin, continues: “Trump lost a trade war that he started, farmers bankrupted, steel workers betrayed and manufacturing in a recession. Donald Trump lost, and we can’t afford four more years of losing.”
Now that Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, the DNC and campaign are largely a one-and-the-same organization and the ad ends with Biden’s voice approving the message. The strategy also signals that the Biden campaign believe Trump is vulnerable on trade, especially with persuadable voters in key swing states.
Courtney Parella, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, said the President is “the only leader to boldly stand up to China and renegotiate unfair trade deals that have been in place for decades, deals that Joe Biden did nothing to undo during his 47 years in office.”
“Farmers know we must win this fight for free, fair, and reciprocal trade, both for our agriculture sector and for our nation’s economy, and they trust President Trump to do just that,” Parella said.
The release of the DNC ad will be followed up by a call with farmers like Craig Myhre, a corn and soybean grower from Osseo, Wisconsin, who has been dissatisfied with Trump’s trade war.
“It’s been pretty decimating,” Myhre, who did not support Trump in 2016, told CNN. “We have lost our markets. Farm prices were on a precipitous fall the last three years and once the virus hit… it was like salt in the wound.”
The Democratic committee will also highlight the story of Rick Telesz, a Pennsylvania farmer who voted for Trump in 2016 but told CNN in 2019 that he won’t back the President again because of the trade war.
“Yes, I am angry at him,” he told CNN at the time.
And Buttigieg and Warren will be two of the Democrats leading the messaging for Democrats. Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will do a series of media interviews on the topic and a virtual event focused on Michigan on Tuesday afternoon, while Warren, the Massachusetts senator, will headline a virtual event focus on Pennsylvania on Wednesday.
“The DNC is stepping up to clarify the record because we know this president will continue to fog up his failure to stand up for American workers and American framers when it comes to dealing with China,” Buttigieg told CNN on Tuesday. “The record and the facts are very clear: You’ve got a president who talks tough, went into a trade war without a strategy and then allowed American farmers and workers to pay the price.”
Trump swept into the White House nearly four years ago, in part, because of the outsized support he drew from rural America. Many farmers had grown disillusioned by the trade deals that had established their markets years earlier and wanted a change, something Trump promised to provide as he railed against deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The main focus of Trump’s trade ire was China.
“When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China, in a trade deal,” Trump said at his 2015 campaign launch. “They kill us. I beat China all the time.”
But the president’s decision to take on the superpower led to a tit-for-tat trade war, with China imposing billions of dollars in tariffs on good imported from the United States. Soybeans were arguably the most impacted major American product, with sale to China largely stopping for a year, leading prices to crater and a record number of beans to pile up in storage facilities.
The Trump administration looked to stem this uncertainty with a series of bailout programs for farmers hurt by the U.S.-China trade war.
American farm bankruptcies, however, still went up by 20% in 2019, according to analysis from the American Farm Bureau, the highest level since 2011. There were 595 Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies, nearly 100 more than in 2018, the trade group said.
In a bad sign for Trump, the impact of the trade war has been most acutely felt in battleground states like Wisconsin, a state long known as America’s Dairyland that saw the most farm bankruptcy filings in 2019. Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1% in 2016, but a recent Fox News poll found Biden up by 9% in the key state.
“Trump’s failed trade war wreaked havoc on industries across the country,” said Adrienne Watson, the DNC War Room Director. “Trump lost a trade war. American workers lost so much more. America can’t afford four more years of Trump losing to China.”
CNN’s Katie Lobosco and Vanessa Yurkevich contributed to this report.