At Iowa Ag Summit, Corn Will Be King

Ethanol advocates say Republican speeches on Saturday could make or break candidates' chances in the Hawkeye State.

Meet the Man Behind The Iowa Ag Summit

Plenty of candidates have learned it the hard way: When it comes to Iowa politics, you don’t mess with the corn industry.

For years, federal ethanol subsidies were sacrosanct in the Hawkeye State. Just ask John McCain, whose position on what he once called “an example of the influence of special interest in Washington” ultimately cost him crucial rural votes in the 2008 general election. Now, as a new crop of potential 2016 presidential candidates take the stage at an agricultural summit in Des Moines on Saturday, the way they address the related issue of federal ethanol mandates could shape their chances of winning the state's first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses.

The first Iowa Agricultural Summit will feature appearances by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and other high-profile Republicans eying a bid for the White House. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal are skipping the event; Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul who is again flirting with a presidential run, canceled late Friday, in part due to weather complications.

Not surprisingly, farming advocates maintain that candidates can't win Iowa without the ethanol industry endorsement.

“It’s really hard for people outside Iowa to understand ag issues and how important they are to our state,” said Jerry Mohr, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, arguing that the statewide importance of ethanol mandates could not be overstated.

Managed by the Environmental Protection Agency for the past decade, these mandates, known as the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, require that the country’s gas supply contain a minimum amount of ethanol–alcohol based on corn. It’s a windfall for the $5.5 billion renewable fuels industry in Iowa and, farming association officials contend, part of the reason the state weathered the 2008 recession as well as it did. 

Farming industry leaders attending the event say they will be listening for White House hopefuls who, at the very least, appear willing to be persuaded about the need to continue the ethanol mandates. Near the top of their list is Bush, who is making his first trip to the state since laying the groundwork for a presidential run—his brother, George W. Bush, signed the renewable fuel standard in 2005, then expanded it two years later.

“We want to look people like Governor Bush in the eye and know where he’s at,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “We want to know where he stands on the renewable fuel standards and why. We want to hear him say it and know he means it.”

But the issue could pose a delicate dilemma. A strong showing in Iowa would undoubtedly boost any would-be campaigns in a crowded Republican presidential field. But so would the support of conservative donors and influential organizations—such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Club for Growth—that oppose such government mandates. 

“I hope [the candidates] stand on principle,” said Bruce Rastetter, organizer of the Iowa Agricultural Summit, in an interview Friday with Mark Halperin on With All Due Respect, adding, "I hope they answer the questions." 

Some Republicans have already chosen sides. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has sponsored legislation to repeal the renewable fuel standard, blaming ethanol support for driving up fuel and food prices. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry sent a letter to the EPA in 2008, requesting a waiver from the ethanol portion of the mandate in Texas for similar reasons.

"Rick Perry has never backed away—he’s an oil guy,” Mohr said. “If he’s going to keep singing that song, he might as well not come to the state.”

Still, not long after the crowd files through the gates of the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Saturday morning, Perry will take the stage. 

Mark Halperin contributed reporting. 

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