It felt like caucus season once again this weekend with multiple likely Republican candidates and the entire national press showing up in Des Moines for the Ag Summit. Bruce Rastetter, in an obvious attempt to make himself a caucus kingmaker, hosted the event and did a Q&A with every White House hopeful, while other speakers gave prepared remarks at the podium. On the issues, there was very little disagreement outside of immigration and the Renewable Fuel Standard. All the Republicans were against EPA regulations, opposed trade with Cuba while supporting trade with China, and criticized GMO labeling. No two candidates had more at risk at this summit than Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, who have both taken positions at odds with Iowa farmers. Neither appeared to make any headway in changing the conversation over their views.
Bush and Cruz Struggle to Connect
“He’s Done.” That’s what I overheard a Republican activist remark as soon as Ted Cruz made clear that he still opposes the Renewable Fuel Standard during his Ag Summit appearance. Cruz started out his Q&A by saying switching his position “would be the easy thing to do,” but that he still doesn’t back the ethanol mandate. That candor may help him with his Tea Party supporters, but he’s not making many friends in the Republican business crowd, nor will it make an Iowa run easy. Still, give him credit for coming to an event where he opposes what everyone there strongly supports.
Craig Robinson made an interesting point about Bush on Twitter of how he’s staking out so many moderate, general election-type positions, but not when it comes to renewable fuels and wind energy (in theory, the “conservative” position on RFS is that there shouldn’t be any government mandates or tax credits for any type of fuel). It makes sense that Tea Party-backed Cruz would use that position. Bush defends his moderate immigration policies, but can’t yet seem to bring himself to back ethanol mandates. He made it sound like he might be open to keeping the RFS going for a bit, but didn’t give it the strong endorsement others did. Nor did he even try to play to the crowd that much, seeming a little uncomfortable in the beginning. Bush may risk coming off like he’s just too good for all of this with a high-minded approach on something that actually has a lot of merit.
Surprise Stand-Outs from Those Who Don’t Usually
Get ready for the Lindsey Graham momentum! OK, maybe not, but I heard many attendees buzzing about Graham’s performance in the chair. He looked like he was having fun, dishing out some funny jokes while still getting into the nitty-gritty policy details. He involved the audience by asking them several questions. In an event where each likely candidate got the exact same questions – and many gave the exact same answers – Graham’s easy-going turn was one that stuck out in people’s memories.
Former New York Governor George Pataki also come off surprising well. He related stories of living on a farm and delved into policy minutia better than any other potential candidate at the event. He also said he’d name his farm’s first calf this year after Rastetter. That’s nice and totally not weird at all. Right now it seems like all of these potential Republican White House hopefuls are impressing the early state crowd, even ones like Graham and Pataki who don’t have any natural base or rationale to run. Who knows – the next Iowa Poll may have ten different candidates at ten percent each.
Democrats Miss Out
I wrote on Friday that I wondered if Democrats were missing out on an opportunity by skipping out on the summit, save for former Lt. Governor Patty Judge. My time there on Saturday confirmed that idea to me. Hundreds of Iowans interested in ag policy were on hand, along with over 250 credentialed press that were tweeting, reporting and interviewing at the Fairgrounds. Democrats stayed away mostly because they didn’t want to legitimize Rastetter’s standing, or were concerned about it being a corporate-backed event. But tiny moral victories don’t get you votes.
Yes, Rastetter is a big GOP donor. Sure, it was an overwhelmingly Republican crowd. But this wasn’t some red-meat conservative affair. It was largely an in-depth policy discussion on agricultural issues. True, there were a lot of important rural topics missing – water quality, nutrient loss and the challenges facing small family farms. Had some more progressive speakers attended, perhaps they could have worked that into the conversation. Staying away just ensures it gets ignored.
“I hope that in the future this can be a true bi-partisan event,” Judge said in an interview following her speech. “Renewable fuel is not a Democrat or Republican issue, nor is creating food. We may differ from the Republicans on some views that we have about trade policy, about EPA requirements. That’s OK, we can have those disagreements and hopefully we can educate and move people to our position. But I don’t think we gain anything by stonewalling.”
- Kim Reynolds needs better speech-writers, or perhaps better delivery skills. If Terry Branstad really wants Reynolds to succeed him at Terrace Hill, he needs to let her open up and be herself a little more. She was tasked with a dry, policy-heavy speech that said little about herself. Perhaps that’s what her official capacity at the event called for, but she needs to tell her own story more at these large Republican gatherings to build enthusiasm for her 2018 run. She’ll have to beat Bill Northey in a marquee primary match-up, and these kind of drab performances won’t get it done.
- The audience started applauding as Congressman David Young entered for his speech. “No, no, sit down,” he quickly said, and they did. David Young simply will not have any of your enthusiasm.
- Rod Blum is really not helping his future reelection effort by talking about his buddy-buddy relationship with Steve King at these events. Blum started his speech with stories of his times hanging out with King. The first-year incumbent is representing a Democratic-leaning district with many middle-of-the-road voters. Yet he still happily connects himself to the most polarizing, partisan, ultra-conservative Republican in Iowa. I don’t get it.
- Rick Perry continues to “lean in” for his second presidential run – both literally and figuratively. Rather than chat directly with Rastetter during his Q&A, he often leaned forward in his chair and addressed the crowd directly. A smart move that reflects his considerably more assertive (and effective) campaign this time.
- Scott Walker’s biggest asset in this race in Iowa may be just how Midwestern he comes off. He seems relaxed answering questions, displays a deep knowledge of the issues, doesn’t express too much emotion, but comes off as cool and collected.
(Also, my apologies for not having my usual Sunday Grab Bag post yesterday. I wrote up a really good 900-word post only to have my finger slip, click the wrong button, and delete the whole thing. I have no idea why it hadn’t saved as a draft. Suffice to say I was not very happy yesterday.)
by Pat Rynard