WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 205 - For decades, corn growers and ethanol producers have counted on the Iowa caucuses to ensure future presidents would pay attention to what they wanted in federal policy. The strategy worked famously well with George W. Bush, the Texas oilman-turned-governor, who signed the first Renewable Fuel Standard into law in 2005 and then supported its dramatic expansion in 2007.
But the Iowa strategy appears to be faltering this time around, at least on the Republican side. Ben Carson, who is virtually tied with Donald Trump in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, has dropped his previous support for subsidizing ethanol infrastructure. And now, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has called for phasing out the RFS, has picked up a critical Iowa endorsement from popular Congressman Steve King, who represents the biggest ethanol-producing district in the nation.
“The other issues are bigger than the RFS and farm programs, the immigration thing in particular. Our huge debt is very concerning,” said Dave Nelson, a farmer in north-central Iowa and a pioneer in the state’s ethanol industry. Nelson is a former board member with both the Renewable Fuels Association and National Corn Growers Association.
Cruz doesn’t have to win the Iowa caucuses, but a strong showing there could still give him momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary and the Southern primaries that follow, starting with South Carolina. Even before the King endorsement, Cruz had already pulled into a near tie in Iowa with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio behind Trump and Carson, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Trump had the support of 24 percent of Iowa Republicans, followed by Carson at 23.5 percent, Rubio at 12.8 percent and Cruz at 12.3 percent. No other candidate cracked double digits.
A Cruz victory in Iowa would almost certainly be viewed as a rebuff to a bipartisan campaign launched by the ethanol industry’s supporters, called America’s Renewable Future, to influence the caucuses. Cruz “is the most anti-ethanol candidate running for president, and if successful, Iowa and our nation will continue to be addicted to foreign oil at the expense of our nation’s heartland,” the group said in a response to the King endorsement.
The impact of King’s endorsement is unclear. In 2008, he endorsed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, whose campaign later fizzled, and King didn’t endorse anyone in 2012. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said that in northwest Iowa in particular the King endorsement will “be very helpful to Cruz, and I don’t think his position on ethanol is going to enter into people’s thinking on that for the most part.”
A former political adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod, used his Twitter account to opine that King could well make a difference this time. The King endorsement is “a big development in GOP race. Cruz could very well rise late and win IA - and nomination,” Axelrod wrote.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse earlier in November, King downplayed Cruz’ opposition to the RFS and said he thought the senator was positioned to pick up support in Iowa from supporters of both Trump and Carson.
King said Cruz’ proposal to phase out the RFS and abolish it in 2021 is “kind of a technicality,” since the 2007 law only set ethanol use targets through 2022. “I think Cruz is for competing energy” sources, King said. “Whatever he might be able to do along the lines of market access – ways for ethanol to compete on a level playing field with petroleum – would be helpful.”
But the Renewable Fuels Association said the RFS wouldn’t necessarily disappear after 2022. After that, the EPA would have the discretion to determine the levels of biofuels refiners would be required to use, the organization said. “The notion that the RFS will simply end in 2022 is incorrect,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of RFA.
Ethanol isn’t the only agricultural policy issue where Cruz, who is especially popular with conservative hard-liners in the House, could give farmers heartburn. In the latest Republican debate, Cruz called for eliminating the sugar program to help pay for defense spending, an idea that raised alarms with the American Sugar Alliance, which pointed out that the program is generally operated at no cost to the taxpayers. “You can't buy many tanks, fighter jets, or aircraft carriers for zero dollars, so it's safe to say that sacrificing U.S. sugar farmers won't be a big boost to our military might,” the group said.
After the debate, ASA spokesman Phillip Hayes told Agri-Pulse that Cruz was the "anti-farmer candidate."
"I think it’s important for all of agriculture to take note of what Sen. Cruz said. It’s not just sugar policy he’s looking to gut,” Hayes said. “He’s after crop insurance; he’s after ethanol policy. he’s after the farm bill."
In an interview earlier this fall, Cruz seemed to suggest that crop insurance should be reformed to focus more on the needs of small-scale and lower-income farmers. “Whether it is ObamaCare or crop insurance, when you have the federal government stepping in it ends up limiting choices and driving up prices,” he said. “I'd like to see farmers have more options, more choices, be able to buy insurance on a national market.”
The views of Nelson, the Iowa farmer, aren’t necessarily shared by other producers in the state. Bill Horan, another longtime leader among Iowa corn growers, said it would be difficult for him to support a candidate who opposed the RFS. “The oil industry is never going to have a level playing field” with ethanol, he said. “They’ve got their privileges built into the tax code.”
Nelson, who isn’t supporting a particular candidate yet, said he would count on King to bring Cruz around on issues like ethanol. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world that King is educating him really well on ag issues and ethanol issues,” Nelson said.
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said in an email that he hoped King “can work to educate Sen. Cruz about how the majority of Iowans are troubled by his double-standard of supporting taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil while opposing the RFS. We wish Rep. King luck in this endeavor.”
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