Republican 2016 contenders invade Iowa to talk up ethanol — and woo rich donors
Nine potential presidential contenders came to corn country this weekend to kiss the ring of Bruce Rastetter, the breakthrough Republican donor of the early but very much active 2016 election cycle. But with his pet issue of ethanol subsidies becoming an increasingly charged issue, the Iowa Agriculture Summit was all about paying tribute to the stalk.
Democratic presidential contenders were invited, and advocacy group America’s Renewable Future, one of the summit main sponsors, employed equal numbers of Democratic and Republican operatives at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. But no potential challengers to Hillary Clinton showed up, and the only non-Republican to speak was Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor.
While Judge insisted to the Guardian that the advocacy group was “not really in the business of extracting a political price” and instead “trying to educate” voters, the predominantly Republican cattle call had a distinctly conservative feel. An email from the group insisted the event gave prospective candidates “the opportunity to express their support for America’s renewable fuel industry” and said those Republicans opposed to the controversial mandate at the heart of the brewing ethanol war “need education”.
The goal of the summit, with or without the on-stage interviews with their mega-donor in waiting, was to push presidential hopefuls to pledge fealty to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires all gasoline sold in the United States to contain 10% renewable fuels. The RFS, which Republican Congressman Steve King went so far as to call it “the Holy Grail”, provides a key price support for corn and ensures that farmers can make a profit on every bushel they sell. The result of the standard is that 40% of the US corn crop gets turned into ethanol .
The RFS is opposed by free-market advocates who see it as a distorting the energy market – and by environmentalists who see little, if any, ecological benefit to replacing petroleum with corn-based ethanol. So the weekend gathering here served as a counter-offensive to make sure candidates won’t rock the boat against any attempts by opponents to roll it back.
The mandate due to expire in 2022, but with a presidential election and conservative fears of a Congress overturning it in the meantime, Rastetter’s summit took place in the moneyed shadow of the civil war between Tea Partiers and the Republican establishment. Conservative groups like Club for Growth and the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity are opposed to the RFS, while Tea Partiers despise it as a form of corporate welfare.
The result: opposing the RFS is now a demonstration of conservative bona fides in some circles.
Only Ted Cruz and Rick Perry restated their opposition over the weekend – no surprise given their roots in Texas, a state dominated by the oil industry, which has long opposed the RFS.
The seven other would-be candidates had varying levels of enthusiasm over Rastetter’s raison d’etre. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum told the Guardian that his support for the RFS was so fervent that he was the only presidential hopeful to attend the state convention of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “All of the candidates were invited to stick around” after the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Santorum said, “but only one did.”
RFS supporters were happy to reel in former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Bush, making his first major swing through Iowa , also made his first public remarks on the issue.
“The markets ultimately are going to decide this,” Bush said , while kicking the can down the road on a firm stance: “Whether that’s 2022 or sometime in the future I don’t know.”
Walker said that while he supports “a free and open market”, he was “willing to forward on continuing the renewable fuel standard.”
Whether the ethanol standard would prove as hot-button an issue with voters as it has become inside the early campaign cycle, however, remained to be seen.
“I don’t know if it’s is a deal-breaker, but I’d like a candidate who supports it,” said David Young, a first-term Republican congressman from suburban Des Moines.“Iowans aren’t one-issue voters.”
Despite Rastetter’s wealth and influence, attendees didn’t just come to court his favor. The businessman, who made fortunes both in the pork and ethanol industries, is closely affiliated with the establishment wing of the party.
Although Rastetter remains uncommitted in the 2016 election, which is still a full 610 days away, he led a delegation of Iowans to New Jersey in 2011 in an attempt to convince Chris Christie to run.
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