In Kansas, Trump fared best in areas most reliant on foreign trade and immigrant labor

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, the Kansas House Majority Leader, talks with reporters following the 2017 Kansas Economic Policy Conference held Thursday on the University of Kansas campus.

President Donald Trump has been described as a “nativist” who campaigned for president promising to crack down on immigration and to renegotiate, if not pull out of, international free trade agreements.

And so it is perhaps ironic that in Kansas, Trump fared best in the 2016 election in areas of the state that are most dependent on immigrant labor and international trade.

That was one of the topics that seemed to puzzle experts the most this week when they met on the University of Kansas campus for the annual Kansas Economic Policy Conference.

“It’s difficult for many of us to completely understand that,” said Kansas House Majority Leader Rep. Don Hineman, who farms outside the town of Dighton in Lane County in western Kansas, a region of the state that depends on immigrant labor to staff the meatpacking plants that drive the local agricultural economy.

Meat and cereal grains are two of the state’s biggest exports, behind aviation products, and southwest Kansas is the center of the state’s meatpacking industry.

In Finney County around Garden City, home to one of the largest meatpacking plants in the United States, nearly half the population is Hispanic, according to Census figures.

In Ford County around Dodge City, 54 percent are Hispanic.

And yet, in the 1st Congressional District in Kansas, Trump received nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Similarly, the aviation industry, which accounts for about 20 percent of all Kansas exports, is centered in the 4th Congressional District around Wichita and south-central Kansas, where Trump won 60 percent of the vote.

Some at the conference said those trends were a classic example of Kansans voting against their own economic self-interest. But Hineman said economic self-interest is not the only factor that goes into how people vote, especially in his part of the state.

“I think Trump’s appeal, to some extent, was anti-establishment. ‘I’m going to do it differently. I’m a businessman,'” Hineman said. “That appealed to a lot of folks, until they get into the details of exactly what that means and how it might affect them and their lives back in western Kansas.”

“I would make the claim that some of his success in those districts was due to who his opponent was,” he added.

Hineman also recalled events roughly 20 years ago in Lane County, population 1,636, when the giant pork producer Murphy Family Farms proposed developing a farrowing operation there that would have employed 50 people.

“That’s much less than Tyson’s 1,500,” he said, referring to Tyson Food’s proposal, recently rejected, for a poultry processing plant near Tonganoxie. “But for Lane County that would have been a huge deal.”

“But the community finally decided, that’s not for us,” he said, “because they recognized, we don’t have the workforce. Someone’s going to have to work there, and the logical conclusion is they’re not going to look like us or talk like us, and enough folks in the community said we don’t want that. And so Murphy Family Farms finally said, if you don’t want us, we don’t want to be there. It didn’t happen.”

Michael Smith, who teaches political science at Emporia State University, said in a separate telephone interview last week that he agrees with the idea that Trump’s success in Kansas was not the result of his core policy positions.

“Maybe part of it is that voters haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I think there may be some skepticism that Trump is actually going to do these things. You vote for Trump more to make a symbolic statement that you’ve had enough.”

Smith also pointed to the Kansas Speaks poll conducted by Fort Hays State University before the 2016 election that showed Trump had an overall negative approval rating among Kansans.

“However, it also showed that Hillary Clinton was even more unpopular,” Smith said. “And so it may not be the case that Kansans are in love with Donald Trump, it may just be the case that they just really, really, really dislike Hillary Clinton.”