DES MOINES, Iowa, March 7, 2015 – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker closed out an historic forum for potential presidential candidates by checking off the boxes on policies important to Midwest farmers, starting with support for federal biofuel policy.
Walker has largely avoided the ethanol issue in the past, but he left no doubt about his position during his 20-minute interview with the Iowa Ag Summit’s chief sponsor, Bruce Rastetter, a leader of the ethanol industry who questioned each of the nine potential candidates for about 20 minutes apiece.Walker expressed hope that the biofuel mandates would eventually become necessary, but that they’re still needed because of existing market barriers to increasing U.S. sales. Drawing applause, he said he was “willing to go forward on continuing the Renewable Fuel Standard and pressing the EPA to make sure that there is certainty in terms of the … levels set.”
Rastetter did not push the prospective candidates to say specifically whether they would adhere to the usage levels set by the 2007 energy law but instead focused on getting the commitments to providing “market access” for biofuels.
EPA has proposed to lower the annual mandates to keep them in line with market limits but officials have yet to even finalize the target for last year as well as propose one for 2015.
Walker was somewhat clearer than one of his chief rivals, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But Bush, too, said that the industry needed “certainty” in federal policy.
Walker sounded very much like the Midwest governor that he is, repeatedly invoking his work with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and promoting the need for rural broadband, community colleges and transportation infrastructure.
He also appealed to Iowa’s conservative base – and distinguished himself from Bush – by saying he was opposed to “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. Bush, in his morning appearance at the summit, reaffirmed his support for providing immigrants a path to legal status.
Walker agreed with his fellow prospective candidates calling for overhauling the H-2A program that farmers use to import workers, primarily from Mexico. “H-2A is a mess, a bureaucratic mess for a lot of farmers,” Walker said.
On another hot-button issue for conservatives, Walker touted his state’s requirement that able-bodied food-stamp recipients who don’t have children sign up for employment programs if they want to keep receiving the benefits. “ I want to make sure they have the skills to get a job,” he said.The 2014 farm bill authorized a series of state-run pilot projects to test varying approaches to such welfare-to-work efforts.
Walker at one point seemed unable to recall the name of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder who is an Iowa hero, in arguing why biotechnology is useful and mandatory labeling of GMOs would be a bad idea.
“That gives a false impression that somehow something’s different,” Walker said of GMO labeling.
Bill Couser, who produces corn, soybeans and cattle north of Des Moines as well as being in the ethanol business, said the summit allowed Iowa agriculture to force candidates to go on record on the RFS, the bottom-line issue for Iowa agriculture.
“Iowa has made a statement. We’ve drawn a line in the sand. You help me. We’ll help you,” said Couser, who is co-chair of America's Renewable Future, an Iowa-based coalition.
The other potential GOP candidates who attended the summit were New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Gov. Ted Cruz, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Graham may well have been crowd favorite as he frequently cracked jokes and sometimes spoke directly to the audience. At one point, addressing immigration, he quipped that Canadians were welcome in South Carolina because they come in the winter when “nobody else will go swimming" and then return home.
About 270 to 280 journalists attended the event.