The Wrong Way

Republican Matt Bevin’s recent triumph for the governorship in Kentucky underscores the long downward slide for Democrats in rural America. Due to Tea Party waves and cycles of lackluster outreach efforts the blue squad has seen its numbers dwindle in farm country.

What could help farm state D’s wander out of the darkness? According to a new poll commissioned by the National Farmers Union and hyped by the Third Way think tank, rural Democrats should offer unflinching support for the corn ethanol mandate better known as the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).

The Third Way believes that “America is best led from the center” and rejects partisan orthodoxy. They write:

Knowing that Democrats are looking to the Midwest for opportunities to retake control of the House and Senate, Third Way decided to assess how an issue like the RFS plays for the Party in key parts of the region, especially among moderate voters.

Support for the RFS (and opposition to EPA proposals to weaken it) is a net positive for the Democratic Party.

The first thing to remember is that the RFS is agriculture policy masquerading as energy policy. It’s prime intent was to generate income for Corn Belt farmers, which it did for a period of time. It’s also a key element in portfolios for agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland.

Now from the perch of a think tank it may seem elementary to suggest Democratic candidates cuddle up to the agriculture sector because surely farmers will support them in return when election day rolls around. And what’s the harm? Liberals love federal mandates and subsidies.

It’s a fool’s errand because hugging Agribiz hoping it will win Democrats rural votes demonstrably does not work.

In the 2014 election cycle Bruce Braley was running for the US Senate in Iowa against Joni Ernst. Braley was so pro-ethanol that he secured the endorsement of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Enrst – as Third Way points out – was super squishy on the federal mandate for blending corn into the gasoline supply and still pummeled Braley into what soil is left in Iowa farm fields.

That same election cycle South Dakota Democratic candidate for the US Senate Rick Weiland not only advocated for increasing the ethanol blend level by 100%, but “hammered” Obama’s EPA for tinkering with biofuel volumes (which Third Way says is a winning tactic.) His GOP opponent and the eventual Senator from South Dakota, Mike Rounds, tepidly called ethanol an “oxygenate” while making the Keystone pipeline his signature issue.

Now there are a lot of other factors involved in these contests. Braley did himself no favors with the ag community, and Weiland openly feuded with DC powerbrokers.

The singular truth to be gleaned here is one a handful of folks have been repeating until we’re blue in the face (here, here and here)– rural Democrats who think voting for the Ag Lobby’s agenda is a winning strategy are in for some tough news on election night. It doesn’t help and cannot inoculate candidates in a highly partisan atmosphere. Farmers overwhelmingly vote Republican. And perversely, Republicans from farm country can vote against farm bills and attack the RFS without electoral consequence because they check ideological boxes for their voters.

So if you’re looking for topics that resonate with rural America and farmers open to voting for a Democrat, its wise to draft with current issues of income inequality and the plight of the middle class:

  • Federal subsidies overwhelmingly benefit mega farms and the wealthy over smaller farms. They are also riddled with fraud and lack transparency.
  • “Farmers in the middle” who don’t grow organics or for local markets but don’t want to scale massive are being driven from the landscape. They are the “middle class” of US farms and they are disappearing.
  • If you want to talk economic opportunity what about the huge missed income for farmers getting three times the bushel price for organic corn and soybeans? Many US farmers miss out because of the cost of organic transition and we end up importing from other countries even though growing corn is synonymous with American agriculture.

What works to get to rural voters isn’t magic. It takes a message that resonates and isn’t a cynical ploy for delivering federal goodies in exchange for votes. Because the counter narrative is so powerful – you’re a Democrat therefore I hate you – candidates must offer something real and emotional, not cynical quid pro quos to select business constituencies.

It also takes actually deploying staff and resources into rural areas for the long-term, not just when the presidential cycle rolls around. To that end, former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and rural political consultant Matt Barron both have must-read post mortems on the rural vote in 2014 and paths forward.

I don’t have much hope that the Democratic candidates taking the stage in Des Moines on Saturday delve into the issues I mentioned, but there’s a very real chance they take the RFS bait.

Don Carr