Democratic presidential contenders will likely have to impress a key demographic the party performed poorly with in 2016 — rural voters — if they want to win the Iowa caucuses and fare better in key swing states come November 2020.
The race to secure the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election is already in full swing despite the first caucus not being until February of next year. So far, more than 20 candidates have thrown their hats in the ring, and more are expected to join the fray. Obama administration Vice President Joe Biden is expected to announce his candidacy this week, and a handful of hopefuls are still waiting in the wings. Biden already leads in many polls, and his election could trigger a return of several Obama-era initiatives such as the Waters of the U.S. rule and trade policies like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
So far, issues like health care, foreign policy, and social issues have dominated the conversation, but Iowa's standing as the first-in-the-nation caucus state has led some candidates to offer commentary on farm policy issues as well. On that front, candidates have emphasized issues such as breaking up large agribusinesses, improving rural health care and fighting for small family farmers.
Several candidates have records of pushing bills or taking votes directly dealing with agriculture policy or rural issues, but what are Democratic candidates (listed below in alphabetical order) saying?
Cory Booker — Booker, who has represented New Jersey as a senator since 2013, has introduced legislation opposed by animal ag groups but supported by the Humane Society Legislative Fund.
In February, Booker, who is a vegan, told Vegnews.com, “the planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of its environmental impact.” During the 113th Congress, Booker supported legislation prohibiting the slaughter and export of horses for meat consumption. He has also supported strengthening protections for federal lands and public wilderness areas.
Booker is also known in ag circles for his efforts on checkoff reform with Utah Republican Mike Lee. Their bill — which the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said was pushed by "militant vegans" — would ban checkoff groups from contracting with organizations that lobby on farm policy, but it has not become law.
Pete Buttigieg — The South Bend, Indiana, mayor, or “Mayor Pete” as he is frequently called, is seen as a rising star and is climbing in recent polls. He supports the concepts of the Green New Deal and the climate package introduced by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Buttigieg told Fox News Sunday the time to start curbing carbon emissions was “yesterday.”
In 2018, he took part in a Sierra Club effort to request Indiana Michigan Power, an energy company serving both states, give due consideration to renewable energy sources as the utility finalized its 20-year energy plan.
Julián Castro – A former Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration, Castro has been strategizing to win over rural Iowa Democrats and minorities living in smaller towns. He’s traveled the state pushing his “People First” Immigration policy, which focuses on a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, something the dairy sector in Northwest Iowa heavily relies on.
The former San Antonio mayor recently visited Orange City, which has a population of 6,000. He told the Des Moines Register April 16 that he’s counting on these voters, who he says have been overlooked by previous Democratic presidential candidates in favor of visiting larger cities like Sioux City, population 82,000.
Castro’s immigration policy applies a civil violation rather than a criminal one for apprehended people and includes helping Central American countries improve their governments and economies to keep people from leaving. In Iowa, he’s also pushed to improve psychiatric care in rural hospitals to improve mental health.
John Delaney — Maryland congressman Delaney is no stranger to the Hawkeye State; he visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties in 2018 and plans to visit all 50 states.
Earlier this month, Delaney released his “Heartland Fair Deal” focusing on four areas to improve farm country, including economic growth, infrastructure, rural health, and agriculture. In a release, Delaney said his plan "is designed to allow people to move back to rural America ... (and) to end the trade war and give farmers new markets."
He said the plan also boosts rural health care and strives to get more government contracts into rural America. Delaney would also like to re-enter the new version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he supported under President Barack Obama.
Kirsten Gillibrand — New York senator Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has taken a hard-line stance on climate change, telling reporters in Iowa last month it is the “greatest threat to humanity.”
Most recently, Gillibrand blamed climate change for the recent flooding along the Missouri River. Gillibrand has touted the Green New Deal as a starting point to improve the climate but says more needs to be done.
In December, Gillibrand encouraged Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler (then the acting administrator) to abandon a proposal exempting farmers from reporting air emissions under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), citing Congress's choice to leave in place reporting requirements while EPA proposed extending an exemption.
Kamala Harris – California senator Harris has a record supporting legislation to protect migrant agriculture workers. In 2017, she supported Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Agricultural Worker Program Act, which Feinstein reintroduced in January. The bill protects farmworkers' document status, while allowing them to work toward a path to citizenship.
In February, Harris reintroduced the Fairness for Farmworkers Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to grant overtime protections to workers who work more than 40 hours a week.
Harris pushed for increased trade promotion funding in the 2018 farm bill but joined a letter opposing House-passed environmental language during the conference process. She voted for the final bill. Most recently, she’s urged Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to withdraw USDA’s proposed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program proposal, which would make it harder for states to get waivers for the program.
Amy Klobuchar — One could argue out of all the candidates, Sen. Klobuchar of Minnesota has the most ag policy experience. She currently serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee and represents a farm state.
She has agreed with other candidates on breaking up agriculture monopolies and has also stressed the importance of battling climate change. “On day one, as your president, I will sign us back into the international climate agreement,” Klobuchar said last month.
On trade, she would push for finalizing trade deals quickly because government payments are “not the same as selling things” for farmers. She added humanitarian issues also must be addressed when negotiating trade deals, which she claims President Trump has neglected.
Klobuchar visited a Nevada, Iowa, ethanol plant earlier this month, where she assured the ethanol industry and farmers she would continue to invest in the renewable fuels industry while also maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard. Minnesota ranks fourth in ethanol production, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Beto O’Rourke – The former Texas congressman has a limited record on farm policy, but campaign literature makes broad mentions of improving broadband, rural health care, and ag sector profitability.
“Let’s make sure farmers can make a profit while they grow the food and fiber that feeds and clothes not just this country but the world,” his campaign site says.
He voted against the House version of the 2018 farm bill, joining the rest of his party in opposition. His rationale for voting against the bill came down to cuts to SNAP and concerns for “deep cuts to conservation programs and renewables.” However, he did support provisions in the bill to reauthorize programs supporting farmers facing low commodity prices, and he voted in support of the conference report in December.
Throughout his time in Congress, O'Rourke pushed to fund industrial hemp research and end animal abuse. He also supported country-of-origin labeling, if it were done in a way that “complies with agreements with our trade partners” so exports will be treated fairly in their markets.
Bernie Sanders — The Vermont senator brings a good deal of name recognition to the race, following up an unsuccessful 2016 presidential bid to be the front-runner in many early polls for the 2020 nomination.
His most recent stance on agriculture is calling for a moratorium on mergers of agriculture corporations. In Iowa last week, Sanders told HuffPost he would place a moratorium on agriculture mergers if elected president because he said consolidation continues to hurt small family farmers.
Sanders is also known as a proponent of GMO labeling, representing the first state in the union to call for mandatory GMO labeling. As such, he supports allowing states to require labels for foods containing biotech ingredients. On ethanol, in a January 2018 statement, Sanders noted “biofuels like ethanol have been an economic lifeline to rural and farm communities in Iowa.”
Elizabeth Warren — Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, said she would hold major agricultural companies accountable by taking on consolidation. “I want an America that not just works for those at the top, but everyone,” Warren said last month at a Heartland Forum in Iowa.
In a document detailing her ag policy priorities, Warren highlights consolidation, including potentially undoing mergers such as Bayer-Monsanto, something she says "should never have been approved."
In March, Iowa and other states along the Missouri River were ravaged by floodwaters. Warren said “we must pass disaster relief to help anyone who’s been hit by a natural disaster,” which she said meant getting help to farm country. But she — and other Senate Democrats vying for the presidency — voted against disaster relief funding before Congress adjourned for a two-week recess. Democrats want to see more financial assistance for Puerto Rico before they vote for disaster relief.
In addition to those listed above, there are also candidates like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who has pushed to bolster the Conservation Stewardship Program and get venture capitalists to invest more in agriculture companies and innovations. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper spoke about the need to protect water for agricultural use during his time in office, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee is pressuring the Democratic National Committee to host a debate strictly discussing climate issues.
Whoever wins the nomination likely will be pitted against incumbent President Donald Trump, whose deregulatory policies have been popular in farm country. But some of the same voters thrilled with things like WOTUS repeal are also growing weary of the president's trade policies.
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