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President Trump's tariffs are introducing a new, wildly unpredictable issue into the midterm elections, thanks to their heavy impact on states with critical Senate races as well as their likely role in House races across the country.

Expand chart
Data: U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Note: Dollar amounts reference total value of goods in 2017. Cartogram: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Why it matters: This puts GOP candidates in a weird position: Speaking out against trade policy that's hurting their state or district could turn off voters who would view that as criticizing Trump. But Democrats aren't exactly free traders, and they're not piling on the president's tariffs the way they attack his other policies.

The big picture: Politically speaking, "If the Chinese blink and back down, it's a victory for Trump and a plus for Republicans," said Chris Wilson, a GOP pollster who worked on Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 campaign. "But the risk if we get into a prolonged trade war is there will be local and potentially national impacts."

What they're saying: Republican Senate candidates trying to defeat Democrats in red states that Trump won aren't going to jump at the opportunity to undermine their support of the president, despite the party's traditional free-trade ideology.

  • In North Dakota — one of the GOP's best pickup opportunities this cycle — Rep. Kevin Cramer has issued carefully worded statements on Trump's tariffs, emphasizing the need to protect farmers while stopping short of criticizing the president. He also accused Democrats of stoking "hysteria" over the tariffs.
  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat who holds the seat now, has said the tariffs would cause a "devastating blow" to the state's agriculture sector and accused Cramer of belittling his constituents.
  • A similar dynamic has played out in the race for Tennessee's open Senate seat, where Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn has called the tariffs "part of a negotiation and a process," while former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has criticized the tariffs in a TV ad.

The other side: Democrats, however, aren't all universally opposed to the tariffs. Some have always been skeptical of free trade and support the tariffs, while others say they wish Trump had executed them better.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the caucus's campaign chair, said each member will act based on how their state is impacted. "The bottom line here is each member’s job is to defend the interests of the people in their states," he said.
  • "I support the president’s tariffs. I wish that they would be done better," said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who said he's been concerned about trade policy long before Trump became president.
  • Others are more skeptical. “It’s already taking us down a road that’s going to have some real negative impact, particularly on agriculture and construction," said Sen. John Tester of Montana. "If I thought there was an end game here that he could actually achieve, I’d be a little less concerned."
  • "I do think we need to be aggressive with China, but do it in a manner that’s strategic and not in a way that’s impulsive or lacking in a calculated outcome to help our workers and our economy," said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. "Sometimes I don’t know if the president’s able to do that.”

It's not just Senate races that could be affected by the tariffs. One GOP operative said that in House seats in the Midwest, where the tariffs are starting to hit soybeans and dairy farmers, "it could be a real issue."

  • The operative said it could be a problem in places like Iowa's third district and Minnesota's first, which are both rated as toss-up districts by the Cook Political Report.

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged that Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

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Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.