Can Trump or Clinton bet the farm on Iowa?

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2016

Eighth in a series.

Farms are the top story in Iowa — for food, for energy and for the waste that the state’s 20 million or so hogs and millions more cattle produce.

“In Iowa, water quality and clean energy continue to remain front and center,” said Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council.

As the top producer of several agricultural goods from crops to livestock, Iowa will play prominently in debates ranging from regulation of farm runoff to the safety net for farmers to the role of biofuels in the next administration.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, lost the Iowa Republican caucuses this year to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, won the Democratic caucuses by the narrowest of margins. Both are working the state hard in the general election — though recent polls suggest Trump may have a slight advantage.

Iowa is also home to a reasonably competitive Senate race, made all the more prominent by the lingering vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, and to two tight House races.

Here’s a look at some of the issues likely to be on Iowa voters’ minds on Election Day:

Renewable fuel standard

Iowa leads the nation in production of corn-based ethanol, and support of federal mandates on its use has long been seen as a prerequisite for political success in the state.

“It, maybe along with wind energy, was the only energy issue impacting Iowa that both candidates addressed — and both candidates addressed the RFS favorably during the caucus race,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

While Trump has mentioned the RFS during post-primary campaign stumps in Iowa, Clinton hasn’t, Shaw said.

Although rumbles of repealing or scaling back the RFS sometimes roll through Congress, most of the action is at U.S. EPA, which will continue to adjust renewable fuel volumes in the next administration.

The next administration’s EPA could be forced to change aspects of the RFS depending on the outcome of lawsuits, including how the agency uses its waiver authority to set levels lower than the RFS law dictates.

Wind energy

Iowa is also a top producer of wind energy, with nearly $10 billion of investment, according to the Iowa Wind Energy Association, a trade group. An additional $8 billion to $10 billion may be invested in the next three to five years, the group said.

The industry employs as many as 7,000 people in Iowa, making it third in the nation in wind energy employment, the association said.

Trump has been critical of wind energy, including in a recent speech in Pennsylvania coal country, where he blamed windmills for bird deaths. Clinton has said she supports the wind production tax credit, one of the industry’s top priorities.

The tax credit isn’t permanent in the tax code, meaning Congress has to renew it on a regular basis. The production tax credit is set to phase down over several years, although Congress would revisit that issue in any tax overhaul, and taxpayers can opt for an investment tax credit, also subject to further review by Congress and the next administration.

Clean water

Water quality is “by far” Iowa’s top environmental issue, said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources policy at the Environmental Working Group. In Iowa, that issue is tied to runoff from fertilizer and manure.

The issue has made headlines because of a lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works against 10 drainage districts in three counties (Greenwire, Jan. 15). But that’s “the tip of the iceberg” in pollution tied to farming, Cox said, and environmentalists continue to push for a greater federal role in combatting it.

Des Moines Water Works is essentially challenging federal exemptions for farms under the Clean Water Act, an effort that faces stiff opposition from farm groups and not much support among key lawmakers in Washington. Farm groups in Iowa are helping pay the drainage districts’ legal costs, and the president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Craig Hill, said his members worry that farmers who follow environmental rules still face heavy regulation from EPA.

Aside from the role EPA will play in regulating farm runoff, the Department of Agriculture will play a part through conservation programs. Cox said his group also plans to push for tighter federal control on conservation compliance, including requiring producers participating in federal farm programs to take more measures aimed at cleaning waterways.

Trump has called for rolling back EPA regulations and the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule. Clinton hasn’t explicitly commented on the policy, according to the League of Conservation Voters, but she did win the endorsement of the group Clean Water Action.

Trade and farm bill

The next five-year farm bill will begin to take shape as the new administration takes over in 2017. That will shape most programs at USDA, including crop insurance, which is always important to the state, Hill said.

Iowa tops the nation for hogs and pigs, grains and oilseeds, and corn for grain, and it ranks fourth nationally for cattle and calves, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Unless farm fortunes turn around soon — farm income is down sharply this year, USDA has said — debates about the farm safety net will occur as farmers in Iowa and elsewhere are feeling stretched.

While the farm bill looms, so does agricultural trade, Hill said. Farmers in Iowa largely support the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for instance, which would boost pork exports to Japan. More than a quarter of pork produced in Iowa is exported, he said.

Ethanol is increasingly exported as well, said Hill, who added that he’s concerned about the “battering that trade has taken from both candidates.”

Poll vault

Iowa has voted Democratic in six of the last seven White House elections, after siding with the GOP in the five previous presidential votes. Republicans had a very good year in the state in 2014, and they appear to be maintaining some of that momentum into this election cycle, even as two freshman House GOP incumbents face great danger in November. Here are the three most recent presidential polls in the Hawkeye State:

Des Moines Register: Trump 43 percent, Clinton 39 percent. Poll of 642 likely voters taken Oct. 3-6, with a 3.9-point margin of error.

Loras College: Trump 42 percent, Clinton 42 percent. Poll of 491 likely voters taken Sept. 20-22, with a 4.4-point margin of error.

Quinnipiac University: Trump 50 percent, Clinton 44 percent. Poll of 612 likely voters taken Sept. 13-21, with a 4-point margin of error.

Down-ballot races

Six-term Sen. Chuck Grassley (R), whose political career dates back to the 1950s, faces one of his toughest re-election contests ever against former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D), who jumped into the race late. Grassley remains broadly popular, but his role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has bottled up the nomination of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, has been controversial. Whether it’s unpopular enough to cost Grassley another term remains to be seen. He’s ahead in the polls, but Democrats remain hopeful, especially if Trump begins to slip.

Democrats are more confident about their ability to flip two House seats that went Republican in 2014. The Cook Political Report rates both the 1st District race, where Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon (D) is trying to oust Rep. Rod Blum (R), and the 3rd District race, where Rep. David Young (R) is trying to hold off Iraq War veteran Jim Mowrer(D), as toss-ups. The 1st District, which takes in northeast Iowa, gave Obama a 14-point edge over Mitt Romney in the 2012 White House election; Obama carried the Des Moines-based 3rd District by a more modest 4 points.

Reporter Josh Kurtz contributed.

Next: A look at Nevada.