DES MOINES — Sen. Ted Cruz won the first-in-the-nation caucuses despite his opposition to a federal ethanol mandate and a “dis-endorsement” from Gov. Terry Branstad, but it may be too soon to call the corn-based fuel a non-issue in Iowa politics.
In fact, Iowa may have had a bigger impact on the Texas Republican’s position on the Renewable Fuel Standard than he had on the ethanol issue, according to the director of President Barack Obama’s 2008 Iowa caucus campaign and adviser to a pro-ethanol group that targeted Cruz in the caucus campaign.
“This is a guy who had 30 million reasons to oppose ethanol — he’s a senator from Texas,” Paul Tewes of the Smoot Tewes Group said Tuesday. “Super PACs and his whole political contribution history is full of Big Oil.”
However, despite Cruz’s opposition to the federal RFS, “this is a guy that ran around Iowa touting how much he loved ethanol and wanted to end — never said before by Ted Cruz until he went to Iowa — wanted to end oil subsidies,” Tewes said.
Tewes, who grew up just north of the Iowa border in rural Minnesota, and Iowa political observers said the Cruz victory may have reflected changing demographics and politics in the state as much as changing attitudes about ethanol and its importance to the Iowa economy. They made their comments as part of a panel discussion, Ethanol in America: Politics and Policy, in Washington. It was sponsored by the American Council for Capital Formation, which ran ads opposing the federal Renewable Fuel Standard ahead of the caucuses.
Cruz’s win in the Iowa GOP caucuses highlights that Iowa GOP caucusgoers are not single issue voters and are different from November general election voters, said panelist Chris Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.
“Do voters in Iowa care about ethanol? Yes, absolutely, they do, but it’s more of a November election issue than a caucus issue,” he said during the discussion that followed remarks by ethanol proponent Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, and opponent Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont.
The Cruz win also points to the changing demographics of the Iowa electorate, according to Anthony Gaughan, associate professor of law at Drake University. Cruz was expected to do well in western Iowa where former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ran up his margins in the 2012 GOP caucuses. In fact, he lost many of those conservative, rural counties to Donald Trump.
“Cruz did surprising well in urban Iowa,” Gaughan said, including finishing second to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in Polk County by just 500 vote and winning in Linn County. That suggests “the politics of Iowa are shifting … (because) the reality is Iowa is losing rural population at a rate faster than any other Midwestern state” and gaining population in metro areas.
In fact, 50 percent of Iowa’s active registered voters can be found in nine of the state’s 99 counties, Larimer added.
“We perceive it as a rural state,” Gaughan said, “but the politics of the state are moving toward urban-focused issues. Rural Iowa is still immensely important, make no mistake about that, but its influence is diminished from what it would have been 20, 25 years ago. I think that will shape the debate over ethanol going forward.”
Ethanol will continue to be important in Iowa’s politics and economy, said David Swenson, associate scientist in the Iowa State University College of Agriculture’s Department of Economics.
“Ethanol and ethanol production is currently baked in to the Iowa economy,” he said. “We’re going to see a demand for this product one way or another.”
However, the appearance that ethanol’s political impact is diminishing might have to with the fact that its economic impact is “tremendously overblown,” Swenson said. He contends jobs creation numbers are much lower than what ethanol proponents claim. Swenson pegs job numbers at 3,000 per billion gallons of production, not in the hundreds of thousands.
Most of the production is investor-owned, not farmer-owned, he added. “Much of it is petroleum industry-owned.”
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Tewes rejected the notion that Cruz’s caucus victory sends a message that voters don’t support ethanol. More than 80 percent of Iowa caucusgoers supported a candidate — Republican or Democratic — who supports the RFS, he said.
“On any planet, but maybe the planet Big Oil lives on, that is probably a victory,” Tewes said. “Make no mistake, ethanol had a great day in Iowa.”