WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2016 - No period in the presidential campaign is more important to U.S. agriculture than the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. But as the caucuses approach next Monday, the candidates most favored by Iowa’s agribusiness leadership are likely to come in third at best.
Moreover, the likely top two finishers in the GOP caucuses, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, have both taken positions on trade, biofuels and immigration that are giving Iowa aggies a major case of heartburn.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, last year locked up a Who’s Who list of agribusiness backers, including Glen Keppy, a former USDA associate administrator and a past president of the National Pork Producers Council; Thomas Dorr, former president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council and USDA under secretary for rural development; Harry Stine, owner of the country’s largest independent seed company; Charles Sukup, president of Sukup Manufacturing Corp., a leading producer of grain bins; and several former National Corn Growers Association presidents.
Since then, only Marco Rubio has come close to producing a farm team like Bush’s. Rubio’s list of backers, which was only announced this month, includes Ray Gaesser, chairman of the American Soybean Association; Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association; and Gage Kent, chairman and CEO of the Kent Corp., a Muscatine-based grain processor.
But Rubio, a Florida senator, is running a distant third in recent Iowa polling and Bush has been lagging further behind. Trailing among others is Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator whose most prominent agriculture backer is probably Craig Lang, a former Iowa Farm Bureau president.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got attention in Iowa in 2014 by vetoing a ban on hog gestation crates, but he has also struggled to gain traction, despite getting the endorsement last fall of Bruce Rastetter, a leading entrepreneur in the ethanol and hog industries, who chairs the Iowa Board of Regents. Rastetter organized and moderated last March’s Iowa Ag Summit that was expressly designed to force the candidates to address agricultural issues. Trump and Rubio didn’t appear. Cruz did.
“There’s snippets and pieces of a dozen candidates” that appeal to Iowa farmers, but “nobody has got the complete package,” said David Miller, director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.
So for many in Iowa agribusiness, the race has turned into an effort to head off a win by Cruz, the Texas senator who hasn’t backed off his position that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) should be phased out. Gov. Terry Branstad called for defeating Cruz, and some in agriculture are quietly talking about supporting Trump just to make sure Cruz doesn’t win, according to Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. They think “the one who could well pick (Cruz) off is Trump, even though they recognize he doesn’t have a very good trade position,” Northey said.
Trump opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could boost U.S. meat exports, and threatened a trade war with China, the biggest U.S. soybean export market. Cruz, in addition to being an RFS critic, voted against giving President Obama negotiating authority to finish the TPP, and voted for imposing a crop insurance “means” test. Both candidates have taken a hard line on immigration, pushing their challengers to the right on that issue as well.
Nonetheless, Trump is leading the race in Iowa with the backing of more than 33 percent of likely caucus-goers, followed by Cruz at 27.5 percent, according to the latest RealClear Politics average of recent polls. Rubio is running third at 12 percent, trailed by neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 12 percent. Bush is sixth at 3.7 percent, followed by Christie at 3.
Bill Horan, a prominent Iowa corn grower from Rockwell City, said he started off backing Carly Fiorina but was disappointed when the former Hewlett-Packard CEO never caught on in the state. He met with Bush but didn’t think he was strong enough on the RFS.
Horan discussed biofuel policy in person with Cruz in December but couldn’t convince the senator that biofuels would never be on a level playing field with fossil fuels without a federal policy like the RFS. “He just didn’t agree with me,” Horan said.
Cruz’s most prominent backers with agriculture connections – U.S. Rep. Steve King and Dave VanderGriend, CEO of Kansas-based ICM Inc., a biofuels technology company – are defending the argument that he can boost ethanol usage without the RFS by overhauling EPA regulations.
But a political advocacy group representing the industry, America’s Renewable Future, announced a new radio ad Tuesday denouncing Cruz as “paid for by Big Oil.”
Horan worries that the caucus results will wind up diminishing agriculture’s influence in the presidential race, not enhancing it, because farmers haven’t been vocal enough. The message that congressional aides are getting from the race is that the presidential candidates are “talking down biofuels and they’re talking down trade, and nobody is making a big fuss about it, except the governor,” Horan said.
Northey and others are already trying to spin the outcome more optimistically, at least when it comes to biofuels: Even if Cruz finishes first or second with the GOP, the majority of the caucus attendees will have gone to pro-RFS candidates.
Moreover, the RFS will have gotten needed media attention, Northey said. No matter the outcome Monday, the “issue had visibility, and it mattered, and that’s a constructive situation,” he said.
On the less-crowded Democratic side, advocates say all of their candidates support the RFS. The differences between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’ Malley are more along the lines of support for issues like biotechnology, GMO labeling and farm size.
“Bernie Sanders’ policies would increase the cost of food to all Americans and hurt low income people the worst. He also endorsed Vermont’s GMO labeling bill, which is good for Vermont politics but bad for America and global food security,” noted Marshall Matz, a principal with OFW Law who previously chaired President Obama’s farm team. “The 2012 Democratic Platform supported agriculture “from the small farms that feed the community to the large farms that feed the world.”
Hillary Clinton’s most prominent agribusiness supporters in Iowa are Pam Johnson, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association, and Bruce Rohwer, a past president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has an “environmental leadership team" for Iowa that includes Francis Thicke, a longtime organic farmer and an outspoken advocate of that sector who once run against Northey for state agriculture secretary.
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