But like many of his fellow farmers in southern Illinois’ sprawling 12th Congressional District, Hawkins, 37, is still planning to vote Republican on Election Day.
Democrats pinpointed the district this year as one of their most likely opportunities to pick up a House seat, betting, in part, that farmers would abandon the GOP as Trump’s global trade war hits the Midwest. The district went for Obama in 2012, though Trump carried it by 15 points in 2016. But the race is turning into a showcase for how that economic argument alone may not be enough to prevail among voters, even in swing districts.
After running neck-and-neck with his Democratic challenger for months, incumbent Mike Bost began to pull ahead after the divisive September Senate hearings to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
There’s a disconnect between the negative effect of Trump’s policies on his voters in farm country and their unwavering support for him. That could limit the size of the Democratic majority widely expected to take control of the House next year and give Trump cover to prolong his aggressive moves against U.S. trading partners.
Though soybean prices have plunged 20 percent and farm incomes are down 50 percent over the past five years, farmers who plan to vote for Bost say they still have faith their economic pain will be short-lived. They highlight new negotiations with the European Union, Japan and U.K. as a sign of forward progress and support the tariffs as necessary to protect U.S. national security.
They also point to the Agriculture Department’s $12 billion aid package as evidence of how the Trump administration isn’t going to let them fall behind.
“I have to give the guy credit, Trump — he said he was going to do this, and we knew it,” Hawkins said over breakfast in his Illinois hometown. “I personally honestly believe we have better light at the end of the tunnel, and in the end, this is going to help not only agriculture but the United States in general.”
For much of this year’s election cycle, the race sat squarely in toss-up category, with moderate Democrat Brendan Kelly running a middle-of-the-road campaign against Bost, who has held the seat since 2014. On trade, Kelly pinned the blame for the current instability on Republicans, who he said used “a shotgun approach when we needed sniper.”
“There’s going to be ups and downs in terms of trade, but right now we have no real clear plan in terms of how we’re handling it,” he told POLITICO.
The Illinois Farm Bureau has also recently endorsed Bost, as have a group of trustees representing each county farm bureau.
“The question is, do the farmers believe that they’ve been hurt, and are they angry enough about the dramatic decline in prices that they blame the president and blame his surrogates like Mike Bost?” said John Jackson, a political scientist who has been with Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in the southern part of the district since 1969.
“I’m skeptical,” he continued. “Whether they vote against themselves based on the long-term belief that they’re going to be alright remains to be seen.”
At a national level, the Trump administration has largely sought to skate over agriculture’s woes from the trade war to instead celebrate wins in industries like steel and aluminum, which have begun to rehire hundreds of workers as demand for American steel rises. Trump illustrated as much during a recent visit to Carbondale, Ill., a rural part of the district, to rally support for Bost, where he spoke at length about the steel industry while scarcely even saying the word farmer.
“This is steel country,” he said, and then paused. “And lots of other country.”
For Bost, the strategy has been to keep in constant touch with worried farmers and remind them that the end goal is more access to markets than they’ve had before. His work with the administration on steel and as co-chair of the Congressional Steel Caucus has also allowed him frequent contact with the president, to whom he says he’s brought a simple but urgent message from his farmers.
“Please don’t allow this to last too long.”
The 12th district is a part of the world where residents talk about commodity prices the way other Americans talk about gas prices, and what they’ll tell you is that they are down.
They’re down by roughly 20 percent since Trump’s tariffs took effect in the spring, and other countries began to retaliate. Down to the point where farmers are tightening their belts, holding back on major equipment purchases, sometimes retiring early. Down for the foreseeable future, but for what seems like frustratingly little in return.
“Most of our customers get what I think Trump is trying to do,” said Rob Stookey, a manager at Mascoutah Equipment who sells tractors, combines and other machinery to farmers grappling with how to manage higher costs amid lower profits. “But at what cost? And how long is it going to last? That’s the big question that’s on everybody’s mind.”
In rural towns like these, where the farm economy dominates the local economy, it’s more than just farmers themselves taking a hit. A recent Iowa State University study found that current trade disruptions could lead to an estimated income loss of up to $2.2 billion for four major sectors of the agricultural economy, which would in turn reduce labor income in the broader state economy by another $484 million — enough to support roughly 12,300 jobs.
“It does have an economic impact,” said Adam Nielsen, the director of national legislation and policy development at the Illinois Farm Bureau. "When agriculture is doing well, rural communities seem to be doing better. And when it’s not going well, it’s felt.”
But the tipping point may not have arrived yet.
From his back porch, Greg Guenther can look out over the land where he’s lived his entire life and see the machine he just spent hours fixing, even after it caught on fire, because there’s not room in the budget for a new one right now.
“It’s still pain, now, here, for us,” Guenther said, tapping his fingers on his dining room table for emphasis. “But it will get better.”
For David Droste, a 62-year-old fourth-generation farmer in nearby Addieville, Ill., faith in the Trump administration boils down to basic patriotism.
But he acknowledges that some of his colleagues may reach a point when they’ve had enough.
“There’s some segment out there of, ‘I want to be a patriot, but I’m tired of being a patriot,’” Droste said. “And the longer this continues, yes — that segment will probably grow.”