Even in farm country, campaigns not focusing on farm policy

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October 29th, 2012

By Amy Mayer

Ames, IA – When Congress recessed for the election season without passing a new farm bill, many observers thought farmers would demand explanations as campaign trails blazed through small towns. But despite its importance in farm country, the farm bill and farm policy are largely being overshadowed by other campaign issues.

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Voters in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will vote in the tight election fight between Republican incumbent Rep. Steve King and former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, a Democrat. It’s one of the many competitive races across the Midwest that will help determine who controls Congress—and its farm-country setting could have given the farm bill prime billing.

Since Republican House leaders stalled the farm bill last summer, many observers thought campaigning Democrats would pressure incumbent Republicans for an explanation. Weeks ago, Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt predicted the farm bill would play a huge role in election year politics across the Midwest, but that mostly hasn’t happened.

Rep. Steve King and challenger Christie Vilsack at a debate Oct. 25. (Photo by Clay Masters, Iowa Public Radio)

“To me, the big surprise about the farm bill is that Democrats have actually not made more of a case for the farm bill and essentially made that more a part of their campaign against Republicans who are the ones who have blocked it,” Schmidt said.

In farm states like Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and North Dakota, House Republicans face tough competition for re-election or for Senate seats. But with election season reaching its final stage, the candidates—and voters—largely have other priorities.

Farmer Mike Holden, right, talks with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the current secretary of agriculture. (Photo courtesy Mike Holden)

Mike Holden, a farmer from Scranton, Iowa, is one of the voters who will decide the Vilsack-King race. Like many other farmers, Holden says he cares about the farm bill—especially its crop insurance program.
“This year is a prime example of why we have to have a safety net, when you have drought from the sand hills of Nebraska to the eastern edge of Ohio and down to northern Texas and everywhere in between,” Holden said. “You have to have some sort of a fallback.”

But while Holden was thinking about the farm bill, the candidates in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District haven’t talked about it much. To be sure, in Iowa it’s almost impossible not to talk about ag on the campaign trail. But when Vilsack and King have, it has been largely about politics, not policy.
Vilsack has criticized King for not publicly pressuring the House leadership to get the farm bill passed, saying, “He serves on the agriculture committee and I think that sends a strong message to rural Iowa and to the people of his district that he isn’t a leader.”

But King dismissively brushes off her attacks.

“Where the [farm bill] has gone is, it’s gotten intensely more and more political,” King said. “And something that people need to understand is, it’s not Republicans holding up this bill. Republicans want to get a good farm bill.”

The thing is, elections are a numbers game. This year’s divisive presidential election is expected to boost turnout. But Schmidt says there just aren’t enough farmers anymore to drive the agenda—even in the Midwest. Plus, it seems that everywhere concerns about jobs, the so-called fiscal cliff and social issues are overshadowing farm policy.

In Missouri, for instance, where current House Republican Todd Akin is challenging Democratic incumbent Senator Claire McCaskell, ag issues should be important. But the campaign has largely centered on social issues and personal attacks.

Throughout farm country, Schmidt says, campaign strategists choose carefully what to focus on. And apparently they’ve decided there’s not much to gain from talking about the farm bill.

“Or else they just overlooked it because there are other issues that are more capturing the attention of the media and the public,” Schmidt said.

Iowa farmer Holden says that’s largely been true in Greene County.

“I don’t think the farm bill will end up being an issue in the election,” Holden said. “Should it be here? It certainly should be a part of it.”

Even if it’s not on voters’ minds when they cast their ballots, the future of the farm bill and farm policy will be determined by the decisions they make at the polls.

Harvest Public Media, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reports on issues of food, fuel and field across the Midwest.

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