WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 - In one of the most closely-followed congressional races in the farm policy community, Democrat Christie Vilsack has built a financial lead in her challenge to incumbent Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, in a new district that includes many traditionally conservative-leaning rural counties.


The race attracts attention in national agricultural circles because Vilsack is married to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor. King is a long-time member of the House Agriculture Committee who has been critical of many decisions in Vilsack’s USDA.

After raising $759,563 in the first nine months of last year – compared with King’s $610,423 – Christie Vilsack told supporters that she raised another $400,000 in the fourth quarter and begins the year with about $750,000 in the bank. King has not disclosed his fourth-quarter take but reported $497,649 cash on hand after the first three quarters of 2011.


The bulk of Vilsack’s support so far comes from lawyers, unions, the financial sector and women’s groups, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission reports.


King’s support is from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth – his leading donor has shelled out $73,850 to date – and numerous business and farm interests. Among those are the political action committees or executives of Koch Industries, Wichita, Kan.; Lynch Livestock, Waucoma, Iowa; the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Farm Credit Council and National Turkey Federation.


King tops Vilsack in contributions from Iowans – only 13% of his take through September was from out of state, compared with 55% of Vilsack’s. Overall, donors connected with agribusiness gave King $68,000, Vilsack $18,634. Among the better-known of Vilsack’s financial backers are Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farms, the Vermont yogurt maker owned by France’s Groupe Danone, and Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Markets. Each gave the maximum $5,000, an amount matched by spouses or relatives of the same name.


Responding to a question about the separation between his wife’s campaign and USDA business, Secretary Vilsack told DTN’s Chris Clayton during the holidays of “certain ethical and Hatch Act requirements that require me to draw a bright line between activities here and Christie’s campaign.” In addition, he is quoted as saying that her campaign “also has drawn a line by not accepting contributions from someone who may have business before USDA.”


A USDA spokesman declined to say whether that might exclude Hirshberg and Robb – who actively pressed Vilsack a year ago to deny petitions to approve biotech alfalfa – and referred the question to his wife’s campaign in Ames, Iowa. Campaign manager Jessica VandenBerg told Agri-Pulse that contributions are acceptable from individuals in the farm and food industry.


However, “to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the congressional campaign will decline money from PACs “whose company has a regulatory relationship with, directly lobbies, or directly receives funding from” USDA or from an individual registered to lobby USDA.
Photo credit: Iowa Democratic Party



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