WASHINGTON - Republicans have a new reason to worry as they struggle to hold their House majority in November's midterm elections: The price in China of U.S. sweet cherries, raw almonds and frozen pig forelegs.
President Donald Trump's emerging trade war with China is already shaking up U.S. politics, threatening local economies in parts of Washington state, California and Iowa and putting Republican seats in jeopardy.
China imposed levies on 128 U.S. goods Monday, targeting $3 billion worth of exports. In an apparent effort to maximize its political leverage, Beijing has found a way to add to the existing pressure in competitive races.
Democratic candidates have blamed Republicans for the growing trade dispute's impact on local farmers, and Republican leaders have been publicly pleading with Trump to pull back from the brinkmanship.
"This has a devastating effect on our farmers," said Kim Schrier, one of the Democrats running to replace retiring Rep. Dave Reichert, R, in central Washington state, the center of the nation's apple, pear and cherry industries, which face a new 15 percent tax on Chinese imports. "I hold Republicans in Congress responsible for not putting any checks and balances on this administration."
In particular, she has tried to direct the blame at former state lawmaker Dino Rossi, the likely Republican nominee to replace Reichert, who served as a Trump delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention. "Don't you have anything to say?" she tweeted at Rossi on Sunday in reference to the new tariffs' impact on local farmers.
More than 8 percent of the state's cherries are typically exported to China, along with about 1.8 million 40-pound boxes of apples.
Rossi said in a statement to The Washington Post that he opposes "excessive tariffs" on both sides of the border. "Washington State farms and agriculture depend on international trade," said Rossi. "And I hope that the president will protect Washington State's economy and farmers by de-escalating this growing tit-for-tat exchange of tariffs and trade barriers."
A similar dynamic is playing out in California, home to the nation's almond industry, which counts China as its third-largest export market, worth more than $500 million a year. It is now subject to a new 15 percent tax.
There are two Republican House seats in the region vulnerable to Democratic takeover. Both districts voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and in both contests, at least one of the Democratic candidates works in the almond industry.
Michael Eggman, a Democratic bee farmer running against Rep. Jeff Denham, R, says he has been hearing concerns this week from almond growers, even among people who supported Trump's campaign to disrupt politics. "Now they are starting to see how reckless this is," he said. "It's not shaking up Washington now. Now you are shaking up the valley," Eggman said, referring to California's Central Valley.
The issue also has been raised in the district held by Rep. David Valadao, R, just to the south of Denham's district. One of the Democratic candidates, T.J. Cox, who owns a nut-processing business, said in statement Monday that the new tariffs are "devastating to Central Valley small businesses."
"All we get from Representative David Valadao is, 'I'm monitoring the situation,' " Cox said. "This is why we need change, now more than ever."
A spokesman for Denham did not reply to a request for comment. Fearing retribution in a trade war, Valadao signed a letter to Trump in early March, with 99 other House Republicans, expressing "deep concern" about the prospect of new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. "Agriculture continues to be the foundation of the Central Valley economy and we must protect strong trade relations with foreign nations," Valadao said in a statement to The Post.
China has acted while the European Union had threatened to retaliate with politically targeted retribution.
The EU warned that it would impose tariffs of its own on U.S. goods such as Harley Davidson motorcycles and Kentucky bourbon. The motorcycles are made in Wisconsin, the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R,; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, represents Kentucky.
In Kentucky on Tuesday, McConnell expressed concerns about the Trump administration's actions.
"I'm not a fan of tariffs, and I am nervous about what appears to be a growing trend in the Administration to levy tariffs," McConnell said. "This is a slippery slope, so my hope is that this will stop before it gets into a broader tit for tat that can't be good for our country."
In Iowa, the entire GOP congressional delegation, including two vulnerable Republican incumbents, Reps. Rod Blum and David Young, wrote a similar letter to Trump in early March asking him to not tax steel and aluminum imports. "Tariffs are a tax on families, and hard-working Iowans cannot afford a trade war," the letter read.
The letter predicted the targeted retribution to come. China has increased import taxes on U.S. pork products by 25 percent, a blow to the Midwest pork-producing states, of which Iowa is the largest.
One of Trump's biggest supporters in Congress, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has expressed fears about a trade war. He said he hopes former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, will resolve the issue.
Mark Muro, a Brookings Institution scholar, used federal employment data to show that 54 percent of the jobs in the industries affected by Chinese tariffs are in counties that voted for Trump in 2016. But 94 percent of the jobs in hog and pig farming are in Trump counties.
"It makes perfect sense that they would do this," said Dermot Hayes, a professor of agriculture at Iowa State University who studies the pork market. "Iowa is normally a swing state that went strongly for Trump. I would guess that somebody looked at a map and overlaid the areas where Trump won with areas where pork is important."
The 25 percent tax on pork imports to China has coincided with a reduction in pork prices of about $10 per animal in recent months, or more than 12 percent, a shift that could add up to a $400 million loss in annual revenue for Iowa pork farmers, said Hayes.
But the direct effect on farmers of other products will not be known for months, when the products are harvested. Chinese and American officials continue to hold talks with the goal of heading off further import tax increases, and the tariffs could be repealed before Election Day.
While pork prices respond quickly to market pressures, the coming year's almond prices have not yet been set, and the cherry harvest will not begin in Washington until June, with the apple and pear harvests following later in the year. Industry leaders say it is too soon to predict the price moves with any certainty, although the concern among farmers is widespread.
"If the tariffs do remain in place, two things will happen," said Kate Woods, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents Washington fruit farmers. "The price of cherries will go up for the consumer in China, and returns will go down for growers."