Because of the outsized role they play in American politics, there will always be debate over the farm lobby’s power. The first in the nation Iowa presidential primary caucus has been a barometer of the corn and ethanol lobbies’ influence in particular due to the state’s huge output of both.
This time around Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a vocal opponent to the corn ethanol mandate, won the caucus on the GOP side and seemingly slayed the ethanol lobby dragon. I had been hearing from multiple sources in the year before the caucus that ethanol just wasn’t that important to most Iowa voters save the corn farmers, producers and politicians that directly benefit from it. The Des Moines Register puts a finer point on that notion, explaining that it was an “E-victory: That’s evangelicals over ethanol.”
David Kruse of the Commstock Report really drills down into how flaccid Cruz’s victory was when contrasted with historic agriculture support:
In what I would describe as the most ag-oriented/evangelical Christian county in the state, Sioux County, Cruz did win with 33 percent — with Rubio a close second with 32 percent. Trump came in fourth with just 11 percent of the vote behind Ben Carson. You can tell from that vote that the evangelicals did not warm up to Trump and do not love Trump quite as much as he thinks they do. You can also tell that they fulfilled their religion obligation while supporting Sioux County being the top agriculture county in the state. In 2008 Huckabee won 53 percent of the vote in Sioux County. In 2012, Santorum, who like Huckabee, was also not anti-agriculture, won 46 percent of the vote in Sioux County. You can see how Cruz with 33 percent of the vote in Sioux County this time underperformed with evangelicals. Cruz should have blown out the vote in Sioux County and didn’t, barely squeaking out a win by a single percent point over Rubio because of his anti-agriculture positions.
Even so, the ethanol lobby went out of its way to pick this fight. They could have just held back and pointed to Cruz’s pull with evangelicals — the coveted Iowa Republican caucus voters — when he won and moved on. Instead, they’re faced with a deluge of headlines like these:
Cruz kills the ethanol lobby
Cruz wins Iowa, ethanol loses
Corn ethanol: the rise and fall of a political force
Enough with ethanol
Did Cruz win debunk ‘third rail’ theory of Iowa politics?
Cruz win may dim ethanol prospects, some predict
Cruz’s Iowa victory could be big blow to Big Corn
Cruz Win Hits Corn’s Clout and Emboldens Ethanol Foes in Senate
A Win for Cruz, a Loss for Ethanol
The ethanol lobby in Iowa felt they had no other choice but to play press defense because its not in most conventional agriculture group’s DNA to sit on their hands. They also likely assumed a good way to demonstrate ROI for funders was to attack Cruz. By engaging at such a high profile, the ethanol lobby has courted more fallout than a pierced veneer of invincibility. By drawing attention to the issue, media and activists once again get to swing away at ethanol’s faults, both real and perceived, from food price increases to culpability for water pollution and more GHGs.
So what does the ethanol lobby do now? Feeling snake bit, they’ll be prone to start another dull campaign to remind voters of ethanol’s benefits. There’s repeating the notion to voters that if the eventual GOP nominee rolls back into Iowa on an oil only bus dissing the RFS, the blue squad wins the state. It’s also important to remember as Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said, whoever wins the presidency has little to do with ending the RFS, “the renewable fuel standard is permanent law, the president cannot repeal permanent law. Only Congress can do that, and that’s a battle I’m willing to have.”
But that’s not going to slow the Beltway drumbeat that the next wave of Republican presidential aspirants through Iowa owes no allegiance to the corn ethanol mandate. I submit the ethanol lobby doubles down on the Iowa fiasco and do something radical.
They take a shot at Steve King.
Up until Ted Cruz bathed the Iowa Congressman in his full spectrum conservatism, King was a reliable cornservative. King preaches “conservative values,” and blast the “government overreach” in the Affordable Care Act while defending subsidizing crop insurance, which is essentially Obamacare for corn. He pushes for federal poultry insurance to help producers hit by avian flu disasters while calling his vote against Hurricane Katrina relief his “best vote.”
For once, by handcuffing himself to Cruz, King actually embodied his conservative ideals to the detriment of industrial agriculture.
King’s district is one of the largest corn and ethanol producing in the country pulling in over $6 billion in corn subsidies alone from 95-2012. In the “ethanol over evangelicals” equation, King clearly chose Cruz and a far-right social ideology over the farmers in his district that rely on the RFS. And King’s influence among GOP caucus voters cannot be overstated. He was instrumental in Cruz surging to victory on caucus night and rallying evangelical voters to his side.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Steve King is partly responsible for the defeat Ted Cruz delivered to the ethanol establishment. Cruz isn’t going to be president, making King’s traitorous action against the ethanol industry a glorious waste of time.
If the ethanol industry is concerned about reasserting dominance in Iowa after Cruz’s embarrassing victory – and they should be — they should make King pay for collaborating with the enemy. Backing a primary challenger from the ag sector with equal evangelical bona fides would be ideal (assuming such a person exits). There’s plenty of potential allies to cultivate. Like pissed off Carson supporters nursing wounds after King’s electoral skullduggery. As the DMRG’s Kathie Obradovich wrote “Carson had nearly 17,400 votes on caucus night. You can bet his supporters won’t forget about this.” There’s other Iowa GOPers who view King as an embarrassment, and even a case for food movement types to get involved.
Sadly, this is grandiose wishful thinking. It would be a huge gamble on the ethanol lobby’s part. King has vanquished well-funded, serious Democratic candidates and there’s no one I can see on the horizon in his own party.
Ethanol lost a valuable commodity in the Iowa caucus, the perception that they could deliver harm to candidates that crossed them. The big questions now is how, if ever, do they get that big tool back?