The Iowa Caucuses will be used as a springboard to make the Renewable Fuels Standard a presidential campaign issue.
The ethanol industry and its allies are testing a bold premise that voters will cast a ballot based on a presidential candidate’s support for the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). The laboratory for this experiment is the Iowa Caucuses.
The goal is to make a powerful statement that resonates with presidential hopefuls and their handlers as the traveling circus that is a presidential primary campaign moves on from its opening in Iowa in mid-January of next year to the rest of the country.
Farm issues that drive debate early in a race can be long forgotten when unfolding events and candidates’ personal charisma can change the political narrative in states less dependent on agriculture than Iowa. But the America’s Renewable Future initiative aims to demonstrate that biofuels, and the RFS that ensures escalating access to the fuel market for them, can be important to voters everywhere if presented in a comprehensive, consistent way.
“This will look like a presidential campaign,” says Eric Branstad. “Our candidate is the RFS. Our goal is to change the national dialogue.”
Branstad is America’s Renewable Future Director. He is the son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and he is a veteran of presidential politics. In 2004, he was the southeast Iowa director for President Bush’s reelection effort.
America’s Renewable Future has a bipartisan focus. Democrat Derek Eadon, who headed President Obama’s Iowa reelection campaign, joined Branstad in launching the initiative. Its chairmen are former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, a Democrat; former State Rep. Annette Sweeney, a Republican; and Bill Couser, president of Couser Cattle Company and co-founder of Lincolnway Energy.
America’s Renewable Future is funded by a number of industry stakeholders and will look “just like a nice, statewide presidential campaign,” said Branstad.
From the Iowa Corn Growers Association’s (ICGA) perspective, America’s Renewable Future was intriguing for its potential to enable the nation to see the importance of agriculture and the renewable fuels industry through the lens of the Iowa Caucuses. “Agriculture is very well understood in the state of Iowa. When you get outside the state, people have a hard time understanding our story,” says ICGA President Jerry Mohr, who farms near Eldridge, IA.
Candidates who support renewable fuels tend to run well in Iowa, POET Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Corporate Affairs Kyle Gilley points out. POET is an America’s Renewable Future sponsor. In 2012, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), the top two finishers in a closely contested Republican caucus, backed the RFS.
By contrast, two RFS opponents stumbled badly in Iowa. Texas Gov. Rick Perry reassessed his campaign following a fifth-place finish in the caucus and Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN-6), who had announced her run for president in Waterloo, abandoned the bid after finishing sixth.
Gilley says America’s Renewable Future enjoyed a good rollout. But ultimately, being successful in the Iowa Caucuses means organizing the caucus goers.
“Educate the candidates and organize the caucus goers. That is what we’ve got to do to define success here.”
The initiative has the staff and resources to do that, Gilley says. Branstad agrees. By mid-March, America’s Renewable Future was off to a good start. “Senior staff is on board,” Branstad said. “The field staff is coming on. We’ve been across the state talking to farm groups and at ethanol plants.”
The message has been well received. In the field on a tractor may be infinitely more rewarding to most farmers than political activism. But with the price of corn and soybeans falling below the cost of production this spring, and with the state of Iowa estimating that declining land values may reduce state budget revenue by $100 million, according to Branstad, farmers understand the need for America’s Renewable Future to successfully demonstrate renewable fuels can be a compelling presidential campaign issue.
“Any industry will do whatever it takes to protect its livelihood,” Branstad says. “That’s where we are right now.” At forums like the Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines on March 7, where a dozen potential Republican presidential candidates spoke, and at ethanol plants as well as farmers’ groups, “we’re hearing the same voice,” says Branstad. “‘What more can we do to help?’”
America’s Renewable Future is a watershed event. To this point, “the issue has been getting our message out,” Gilley says. “We have been outspent and badly out resourced by the other side – the oil industry.”
The ultimate objective is to introduce renewable fuels and the RFS as a campaign issue in places like New York, California, Texas and North Carolina.
“We are focused on the caucuses,” says Branstad. “Any thought of making America’s Renewable Future portable is months down the line. We will definitely cross that bridge. But we have got to win this before we go on to the next state.”
Ideally, the message shaped by America’s Renewable Future in its effort to influence the Iowa Caucuses is “Iowa agriculture is working hard to provide renewable fuels that are safe, that clean the air and that are grown in this country,” says Mohr. So when voters around the country “are living their lives at 95 miles per hour they don’t have to worry about having safe, wholesome food, a reliable energy policy and clean air. That’s the message we hope they take away from Iowa.”