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Two Congressmen In Iowa Decide Whether To Embrace Trump

Clay Masters/John Pemble
Republican Congressmen Rod Blum (left) and David Young

House Republicans running in tough races this fall have two choices when it comes to how they handle President Trump. Embrace him and hope that rallies Trump’s base to their side or stay away from the president and hope that will draw in more moderate and independent voters. Consider two incumbents in neighboring Iowa districts who are testing out these strategies.

When President Donald Trump came to Peosta, Iowa this summer he was on stage with the district’s two-term Republican Congressman Rod Blum.

“Without Rod we wouldn’t have our tax cuts,” President Trump said to an applauding crowd in July. “And we have massive tax cuts.”

President Trump’s visit came as his trade war with China was just heating up. China has been one of Iowa’s leading markets for soybeans and with commodity prices low, many in the state were anxious. But Rep. Blum did not seem concerned about the political risks for himself or Trump.

He told the president he’d taken some heat for the trade negotiation in the short term but in the long run “the farmers, the manufacturers (and) the employers are all going to be better off” and thanked him for having political courage.

Blum has a few challenges. He faces a House ethics investigation over a private business he founded while in Congress and his district has more registered Democrats than Republicans. But Dubuque County Republican County Chair Jennifer Smith thinks voters will reward Blum with another term for his support of the president. Smith is also an economics professor at a Loras College in Dubuque.

“I do think it’s going to be beneficial in the long term for Congressman Blum to align himself with some of the politics that Trump has done,” Smith says.

While Rep. Blum is embracing Trump, neighboring Rep. David Young skipped the opportunity to show up with the president at the roundtable in Peosta. He told NPR he was in Washington voting.

At the state fair last month, Young didn’t criticize Trump but he wasn’t enthusiastically supporting his trade policies either.

“I tell you personally it make me nervous, it makes a lot people nervous around the district and around the state,” Young told a group of fairgoers from the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox. “I personally don’t like tariffs. I think they’re taxes on consumers. I think they’re taxes on employers.”

Young said if the president can take care of this “sooner rather than later and land this plane, we’re looking at some pretty incredible things happening here in Iowa.”

The effect of the tariffs are going to be felt in Iowa much broader than just on farmers, says Drake Agricultural Law Center Director Neil Hamilton.

“They’re being felt on employment in terms of business in Iowa that buy those products, higher prices on consumers,” Hamilton says. “It’s not clear where any of these alleged benefits by this better that we were going to try to get are going to land.”

Most political forecasters show both Reps. Blum and Young in tough races against Democratic women. While Trump carried Young’s district by three points in 2016, Young won by almost 14 points.

One reason: Congressman Young is just well-liked by voters, even by some Democrats.

“He’s out in the district a lot, seeing the constituents, he sends gifts to people, he sends them letters” says Taylor County Democratic Chair Betty Brummett. “They like him as a person.”

Brummett says she’d never vote for Young and she thinks his Democratic challenger, Cindy Axne, could flip the seat. For one, Brummett says, Axne is spending more time in rural parts of Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District than the last two Democrats who challenged Rep. Young.

“I’m a really nice person too,” Axne tells Iowa Public Radio after speaking to about a dozen supporters at the Taylor County Historical Museum in Bedford. “But you also have to take other characteristics out to congress to get things done.”

Axne and Blum’s Democratic opponent, Abby Finkenauer, regularly argue Young and Blum are a rubber stamp on the president’s policies. For Young, keeping some distance from Trump may help him with voters like Jon Erkkila, who works in special education.

Erkkila did not vote for Trump in 2016, or Hillary Clinton, but he did vote for Young because he’s a traditional Republican.

“(Young) is like eating scrambled eggs with no salt and pepper,” Erkkila says. “He’s never going to inspire people to do great things with his rhetoric and oratory.”

Erkkila still plans to vote for Young this year because he supports much of the Republican Party platform even if he still isn’t a fan of Trump’s. Whether there will be enough voters like that for Republicans in swing districts to survive is one of the big questions hanging over the 2018 campaign.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.