The farm policy landscape could change dramatically a week from now.
In next Tuesday’s elections, control of the House and Senate is at stake as well as a variety of state offices that are important to agriculture policy. The battle for control of Congress will go a long way toward determining the success of the Trump administration heading into the 2020 presidential election.
The next farm bill also could be affected by the election outcome should negotiators be unable to reach agreement on a bill by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, governors and state agriculture commissioners could have an impact on everything from tax policy to state efforts to address water quality and other challenges.
Here is a look at the key national and state races:
Unseating farm-state Democrats could save GOP hold on Senate
As much as Republicans would like to maintain control of the House, holding onto the Senate is even more critical from the standpoint of confirming nominees to the courts and cabinet positions.
Heading into the final week of the campaign, Republicans appear to have a realistic shot at even expanding their GOP majority in the Senate by unseating Democratic incumbents in at least three major agricultural states that Trump carried in 2016: Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota.
Republicans currently hold 51 seats. If they can avoid losing GOP seats in Arizona and Nevada and flip the three Democratic seats, they could increase their majority to 54-46, providing some breathing room in nomination battles over the next two years. The Republicans also are holding out hopes of unseating Democrats in Montana and Florida.
Democrats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota are hoping attacks on Trump’s trade policy will neutralize any damage from their votes against Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the Supreme Court. But Trump’s trade deal with Mexico and Canada and his plan to allow year-round sale of E15 may soothe the anxiety that rural voters feel about the ongoing trade war with China.
Trump, who went to Indianapolis for the FFA convention on Saturday, is expected to make two trips to Indiana and another two to Missouri ahead of the election to give a boost to the Republicans challenging Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
In North Dakota, polls show Sen. Heidi Heitkamp falling well behind GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh battle, but Heitkamp has kept up her nearly singular focus on trade policy. “He is all in on the president, and I’m all in on North Dakota,” Heitkamp said in their last debate.
Heitkamp also has criticized Cramer for supporting the House-passed farm bill, citing a provision allowing some farmers to revise their yield data for the Price Loss Coverage program. The provision would primarily benefit growers in southern Plains states.
But Trump remains relatively popular in North Dakota compared to many other areas of the country. In September, 52 percent of North Dakota voters approved of Trump, according to a Morning Consult poll.
Trump’s approval numbers in Indiana and Missouri were similar in September, which was before the Kavanaugh vote, but Donnelly and McCaskill are running neck and neck with their challengers, Indiana businessman Mike Braun and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.
In Indiana, Donnelly would probably be in good shape if not for his vote against Kavanaugh, said Don Villwock, a former Indiana Farm Bureau president.
During a debate in October, Donnelly defended his support for farmers and said Braun wouldn't stand up to Trump when he was wrong. Braun said Donnelly has been ineffective in Congress because he “never sticks his neck out."
In Missouri, McCaskill has been trying to tie her challenger to Trump’s trade war with China and its impact on soybean growers. "These tariffs have killed commodity prices. There's not a bean farmer in Missouri that's going to come out even this year," McCaskill said in a debate earlier this month with Hawley.
But Hawley won the support of the Missouri Farm Bureau, in part because of his litigation challenging the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule and California’s animal welfare standards.
Trump has also gone after Montana Sen. Jon Tester and may make a fourth trip to the state on Saturday on behalf of Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale. Analysts are sharply divided over the race, with the Cook Political Report calling it a “tossup,” but others rating the contest as “lean” to “likely” Democrat.
A Gravis Marketing poll conducted last week had Tester up by three points, 48 percent to 45 percent. Separate polls done earlier in October by the University of Montana and Montana State University showed Tester comfortably ahead.
Farm districts figure in battle for House control
The battle for control of the House isn’t just being fought on the coasts or in the suburbs, although those are the areas where Democrats stand to make the biggest gains. As many as a dozen agricultural districts could be pivotal as well.
Here is a look at some of the key races, state by state:
Of the GOP-held seats, none is in more danger than House Agriculture Committee member Jeff Denham’s in the 10th District, which includes Modesto. Hillary Clinton carried the district by three percentage points in 2016, and analysts rate Denham’s race against venture capitalist Josh Harder as a toss-up.
In the 21st District, which sprawls across several counties south of Fresno, GOP Rep. David Valadao, a member of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, appears to be in better shape against Democratic engineer and businessman T.J. Cox, even though Clinton carried the district by 15.5 points.
During their only debate, Cox slammed Valadao for failing to pass an immigration reform bill that he had co-authored earlier this year with Denham, or to get meaningful assistance from the Trump administration for the region’s water problems.
Two House Agriculture Committee members are struggling to hang on to their seats: Rodney Davis, who chairs the biotechnology, horticulture and research subcommittee, and Mike Bost. The two Republicans are favorites to win but the close races are indicative of how GOP troubles aren’t limited to the suburbs. Davis’ and Bost’s Democratic challengers are pushing them hard on health care policy.
Trump carried Davis’ 13th District, which includes Decatur, Springfield and Champaign in central Illinois, by 5.5 points. A Siena College-New York Times poll conducted Oct. 21-25 had Davis up 46 percent to 41 percent over Democrat Betsy Londrigan.
Bost appears to be in better shape in the more conservative 12th District, which runs along the Mississippi River south of St. Louis. Trump carried the district by nearly 15 points in 2016, and a Siena College-NYT poll done Oct. 18-22 had him up 48 percent to 39 percent over Brendan Kelly, a county state’s attorney.
Although Trump carried Iowa relatively easily in 2016, Republicans are in danger of losing at least two of the three House seats they hold. Analysts have all but given Rod Blum’s 1st District seat in northeast Iowa to Abby Finkenauer, a state legislator from Dubuque.
In the 3rd District, which includes metropolitan Des Moines, House Ag Appropriations member David Young is in a close race with Cindy Axne, a technology consultant from West Des Moines. Recent polls show Axne narrowly ahead.
National Republicans have trained their support on Young, and Trump went to Council Bluffs earlier in October for a rally with him.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Tuesday he thinks Blum and Young could both win their races because of the extent to which the battle over Kavanaugh's nomination has energized GOP voters.
Democrats would dearly love to knock off firebrand Republican Steve King in the 4th District, which sprawls across northwest and north-central Iowa, some of the world’s most productive farmland. A Change Research poll released Tuesday put King, a senior House Ag Committee member, up by just one point over Democrat J.D. Scholten, and the Cook Political Report has downgraded the race from "Likely Republican" to "Lean Republican."
Dairy processing giant Land O’Lakes announced this week that it was ending its contributions to King over comments he's made about race and white nationalism.
Minnesota’s 1st District, which stretches across the state’s southernmost counties, represents one of the few opportunities for the GOP to flip a Democratic House seat this year.
House Ag member Tim Walz is vacating the seat, one of the nation’s largest ag districts by market value, to run for governor. But Republican Jim Hagedorn, a former Treasury Department official who grew up on a farm near Truman and narrowly lost to Walz in 2016, is struggling to beat Iraq War veteran and former Obama administration official Dan Feehan.
Analysts rate the race as a tossup. A Survey USA poll earlier in October had Feehan up 47 percent to 45 percent.
Republicans have a much better shot at flipping the 8th District seat in northwest Minnesota being vacated by House Ag Democrat Rick Nolan. A Siena College-NYT poll in October put Republican Pete Stauber up over Democrat Joe Radinovich 49 percent to 34 percent.
Republican engineer and Army veteran Steve Watkins is running against former Kansas House Democratic Leader Paul Davis for the 2nd District seat being vacated by retiring GOP House Ways and Means Committee member Lynn Jenkins. Trump carried the district, which includes Topeka and Lawrence, by more than 18 points, but analysts rate the race as a tossup or narrowly favoring the Democrat. Recent polls have varied widely.
Over in the Kansas City suburbs, House Ag Appropriations member and Republican Kevin Yoder is in danger of losing his seat in the 3rd District, which Hillary Clinton narrowly won in 2016. Polls show Democratic lawyer Sharice Davids well ahead in the race.
In the Hudson Valley’s 19th District, House Agriculture Committee Republican John Faso may be losing ground against Democratic lawyer Antonio Delgado. Trump carried Faso’s district by 6.8 points but a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday showed Delgado up 49 percent to 44 percent.
Democrats have tried to make an issue of Faso’s support for the House-passed farm bill.
Trump carried eastern Washington’s wheat-growing 5th District by more than 13 points, but House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers is trying to fight off a challenge from Democrat Lisa Brown, an economist.
Analysts rate the race as “lean” to “likely” Republican, although there has been little polling data released. A Democratic poll in September had Rodgers up by three points.
Republican incumbents facing challenging gubernatorial races
A little further down the ballot, a number of state races could prove to be an indicator of what’s to come for the Trump administration and the broader U.S. political climate.
Races for the governor’s mansions are dead heats in a number of ag states, and ag secretary and attorney general spots are also up for grabs.
Leading the way in races to watch is Iowa, where Kim Reynolds, who has been serving as governor after Terry Branstad’s appointment to be ambassador to China, seeks to be elected for the first time. But she’s in a tight race with Fred Hubbell, a former business executive and economic development director in the state.
Elsewhere in the Midwest, Illinois could flip back to Democratic control as Republican incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner faces a tough reelection bid against JB Pritzker. Wisconsin Governor (and former Republican presidential candidate) Scott Walker finds himself in a tossup race against Democrat Tony Evers.
A number of House members are also running for to be governors: House Ag Committee Democrats Tim Walz of Minnesota and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico both appear poised to win their races. South Dakota’s Kristi Noem, however, is in a tight race against Democrat Billy Sutton, a state legislator paralyzed in a rodeo accident a decade ago.
A number of ag secretary races may also be worthy of attention. In Iowa, Mike Naig seeks to be elected to the office he’s held since appointed to fill the vacancy left by Bill Northey joining the Department of Agriculture. He’s running against Tim Gannon, who worked at USDA while former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack served as ag secretary. Alabama and Florida are both open races, and Sid Miller’s bid for another term as the Texas Ag Commissioner will likely be successful, despite the lack of endorsements from many of the state’s top farm groups.
There are also 30 races for attorney general positions across the country, spots that might not have as direct an impact on farm policy but could have an outsized impact on the Trump administration’s regulatory approach going forward. Former Oklahoma Attorney General – and eventual EPA Administrator – Scott Pruitt was known for many lawsuits filed against the Obama administration. Scott Will, executive director of the Republican Attorneys General Association, said those efforts were frequently bipartisan, and he’s concerned “hyper-activist Democrats … tripping over themselves to sue the president” might get aggressive in a partisan fashion.
Officials watching attorneys general races across the country from both sides of the aisle said Wisconsin and Ohio are presenting competitive races, and Michigan might be one to watch as well. The current 50-state A-G party breakdown is 27 Republicans, 22 Democrats, and one Independent, a number sure to shift after election day.
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