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Ethanol Positions Affected Rural Vote

Friday, September 18, 2009

Des Moines Register, Philip Brasher
Published November 6, 2008

Corn grower Tim Recker says Barack Obama’s relatively strong showing in rural Iowa should provide a warning to both parties: Attack ethanol subsidies at your peril.

John McCain used his long opposition to farm subsidies and ethanol incentives to burnish his credentials as a political maverick. Republicans say it hurt his campaign in agricultural counties that were key to President Bush’s narrow victory in Iowa four years earlier.

Twenty counties that Bush carried in 2004 went for Obama in 2008, including Kossuth County, which has been the state’s biggest recipient of federal crop subsidies since 1995, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Bush carried Kossuth by 5,042 votes to 4,132. Obama won the county with 4,609 votes to McCain’s 4,310.

And in other major farm counties across heavily Republican parts of western and northern Iowa, McCain won by smaller margins than Bush.

McCain carried heavily Republican Sioux County, which ranks No. 2 in farm subsidies, by 81 percent to 18 percent, but he got nearly 800 fewer votes there than Bush did in 2004. Pottawattamie County, No. 3 in subsidies, favored Bush by 59 percent to 41 percent but McCain by only 51 percent to 48 percent.

“The message was that you do not go against ethanol in the Midwest,” said Recker, who farms near Arlington in Fayette County.

The 2004 Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, carried Fayette County by 50 percent to 49 percent. Obama won the county by 58 percent to 41 percent.

But Recker voted for McCain despite their differences on ethanol and farm subsidies. Recker said McCain’s positions on other issues, such as tax policy, were more important.

Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University, said it’s unlikely rural voters went for Obama solely because of his position on ethanol. The economic slowdown was a major issue, and McCain had largely ignored the state in his previous campaigning, he said. “Maybe he felt it (Iowa) was a no-win situation for him because of his position on ethanol,” Goldford said.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, a conservative Republican who won re-election in western Iowa, said he tried without success to get McCain to soften his position on ethanol.

King said he suggested to McCain’s advisers that the candidate talk about the 2015 mandate for ethanol usage as a workable goal. McCain didn’t take the advice and instead kept attacking ethanol, King said.

In the end, ethanol was one of several issues that hurt McCain, including his support for the bailout of the financial system, King said. King said McCain needed to get at least 60 percent of the vote in his district to have a chance at winning Iowa but wound up with less than 50 percent.

Republican state Sen. Steve Kettering, a banker in Lake View, said the economic slowdown was a major problem for McCain in rural Iowa just as it was nationwide. It was “without question the gorilla in the room,” he said.

But he said McCain “did not help himself with the farm community with his position on ethanol.”

Democratic state Sen. Jack Kibbie, a farmer whose district includes Kossuth County, said McCain’s opposition to ethanol incentives “had a lot to do” with his poorer performance in rural Iowa. But Kibbie said Obama was also helped by the economic situation and his superior campaign organization.

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