WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2016 - Rep. Steve King can say “I told you so” after the outcome in the Iowa caucuses. He warned back in January that corn growers and ethanol producers risked a significant defeat for the industry if they publicly opposed Ted Cruz over his position on the Renewable Fuel Standard, and Cruz still won the GOP race.
Ethanol foes wasted no time declaring that the Cruz victory Monday showed that ethanol’s political clout was waning even in Iowa. “I think a clear message coming out of Iowa is that whatever political influence ethanol used to have in the state, those days are now over,” said George David Banks, executive vice president of a free-market advocacy group, the American Council for Capital Formation.
New York Times correspondent Jonathan Martin tweeted that the anti-Cruz campaign, led by Gov. Terry Branstad and the industry group run by his son, America’s Renewable Future, “revealed how limited it (ethanol) is as a vote-driver. It's an elites/industry issue. Voters are nationalized here.”
The spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which has long been critical of biofuel mandates, tweeted: “It Can Be Done: The anti-ethanol candidate wins in Iowa.”
Indeed, Cruz won by winning or running strong in many, if not most, of the heaviest corn-growing counties of the state. He dominated north-central Iowa and carried numerous counties in the northwest and other regions. Donald Trump’s strength was on the state’s western and eastern borders. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio carried the Des Moines and Davenport areas and the home counties of Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.
Even former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who publicly supports Jeb Bush and is no Cruz fan, told Agri-Pulse that “you have to give him (Cruz) credit for the way he organized in Iowa and got people to show up.”
Cruz won five of Iowa’s top 10 corn-producing counties, based on 2014 production data, and lost a sixth, Webster, by a mere three votes to Donald Trump. Among the Cruz counties was the state’s top corn producer, Kossuth, which the Texas senator carried by 30 percent to 24 percent for Trump.
The Cruz win probably won’t have much impact on congressional debates for the immediate future. The RFS still enjoys fairly strong support in the Senate. But the outcome does show that a candidate with a strong organization in the state and the right support can touch the supposed third rail of Iowa politics -- the RFS -- and still win.
Industry officials say they had no choice but to take on Cruz, who wants to phase out the RFS. “We have to hold candidates accountable for their positions,” said Jon Doggett, executive vice president for the National Corn Growers Association. “Does it mean you’re going to win every time? Hell, no.”
The Cruz win was a clear rebuff to Branstad, who called in January for defeating Cruz, and the governor's son, Eric, who leads the industry advocacy group America's Renewable Future. The younger Branstad worked up to the last minute to stop Cruz, even speaking in favor of Trump at a Des Moines-area precinct before the voting began Monday night.
Industry advocates, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, pointed out that nearly three-quarters of the more than 180,000 Republican voters in Iowa, a record turnout by a large margin, chose a candidate who supports the RFS, in other words, someone besides Cruz. Also, the No. 2 and No. 3 finishers on Monday -- Trump and Rubio -- both received more votes than the two top vote-getters in 2012, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.
“There’s no doubt that this issue cost Ted Cruz votes,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “Did he come out on top? Yes, he did. But did the vast majority of Iowans support a pro-RFS candidate? Yes, they did.”
What can’t be overlooked is the role King himself played. King, whose district stretches across north-central and much of western Iowa, is very popular with the conservative rural voters Cruz was targeting. And as Agri-Pulse has reported, King connected Cruz with Dave VanderGriend, CEO of the biofuels technology company ICM Inc., who helped the candidate devise a policy that would rely on overhauling federal fuel regulations to increase ethanol consumption. King also was at the senator’s side as he was forced to field questions and criticism about his policy.
Cruz’s attempt to nuance his position probably helped win some rural support, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “My guess is that the statements that he was making late in the campaign about the blend wall and his support of higher blends mollified at least some people.”
King told Agri-Pulse on Tuesday that the industry should recognize that it lost its campaign against Cruz and instead consider adopting his policy ideas. “Cooler heads need to recognize that you can’t claim that you win if the other guy that the governor targets to lose wins. That doesn’t work for anybody’s logic,” King said.
Cruz won 27.6 percent of the vote, to 24.3 percent for Trump and 23.1 percent for Rubio. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was an early favorite of many in Iowa agribusiness, finished sixth with less than 3 percent.
Hillary Clinton won the Democratic race in Iowa by the slimmest of margins over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, according to the state party's final delegate count. Clinton was awarded 700.6 state delegate equivalents. Sanders received 696.8. Both candidates support the RFS.
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