Sure, Trump just wanted Grassley to know he's pro-ethanol

President Donald Trump can be called many things, but subtle will never be one of them. Within 24 hours of journalists reporting that Donald Trump, Jr. had agreed to a private, transcribed interview with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the president picked up the phone to let Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley know that he’s very pro-ethanol.

Iowa’s senior senator was delighted.

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Bruce Rastetter still in the running to be Trump's agriculture secretary

Bruce Rastetter visited Trump Tower in New York today, as seen in this photo Craig Robinson posted on Twitter. Since making a fortune in the agriculture sector (large hog lots and ethanol), Rastetter has been among the largest Iowa donors to Republican candidates. He gave the maximum allowable contribution of $2,700 to Trump’s campaign in August, shortly before joining the GOP nominee’s informal agricultural advisory committee, aptly described by Brian Barth as a “who’s who of industrial agriculture advocates.” Rastetter had supported New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before the Iowa caucuses and maxed out to several Republican U.S. senators as well as to Christie’s presidential campaign.

Trump said little about food or agricultural policy during his campaign and has kept people guessing about his favored candidates to run the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rastetter’s name didn’t appear on short lists for the job published in the New York Times or Modern Farmer, but he was mentioned in similar stories by Politico and Successful Farming. Such articles aren’t necessarily accurate; Idaho Governor Butch Otter has confirmed that he is being vetted for secretary of agriculture, and his name wasn’t on any short list that I’ve seen.

I assumed Rastetter was no longer a serious contender for Trump’s cabinet in part because of his connection to Christie, who appeared to have fallen out of favor soon after November 8. Vice President-elect Mike Pence took charge of the transition effort and specifically “assumed oversight of the transition at USDA,” according to Daniel Looker’s November 21 report for Successful Farming.

On the other hand, Rastetter is a frequent and influential adviser to Governor Terry Branstad, whom Trump selected to be U.S. ambassador to China this month. He was backstage during Trump’s December 8 “thank you” rally in Des Moines. Though he doesn’t obsessively brag about his wealth like the president-elect does, Rastetter has a large enough bank balance to fit into a cabinet packed with billionaires and multimillionaires.

Picking Rastetter to run the USDA would reassure biofuels supporters who are deeply concerned that Trump chose opponents of the Renewable Fuel Standard to run the U.S. Department of Energy (former Texas Governor Rick Perry) and the Environmental Protection Agency (Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt). For what it’s worth, Branstad has claimed “Trump personally reassured him that Pruitt ‘is going to be for ethanol.’” If Trump keeps his promises on immigration policy, the agriculture sector may be facing a different set of problems. Barth observed in this Modern Farmer story that deporting millions of undocumented immigrants “would undermine the agricultural workforce and ripple out in the food economy in unforeseen, but likely negative, ways.”

Rastetter is currently president of the Iowa Board of Regents, the governing body for Iowa’s state universities. His six-year term on that body expires in April 2017, and Democrats have enough Iowa Senate seats to block his confirmation, should Branstad appoint him to another term.

UPDATE: Ryan Foley of the Associated Press predicted that Rastetter’s attempt to use Iowa State University to promote a major land acquisition in Tanzania “will be thoroughly re-examined” if Trump names Rastetter to his cabinet. Foley reported in 2012 that Rastetter “blurred the line between his role as investor in AgriSol Energy […] and his position on the Board of Regents” when working with ISU on his company’s “plan to develop 800,000 acres of Tanzanian farmland for crop production.” Bleeding Heartland posted many more links here on Rastetter’s attempted “land grab” in Africa.

Tom Philpott reviewed the top prospects for the USDA job in a December 20 piece for Mother Jones. Rastetter’s not on his list. Philpott considers him a “truly heinous” option for various reasons.

SECOND UPDATE: Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble on December 21, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller said, “I do not know if Mr. Rastetter is being considered for a particular post. Obviously he’s someone who comes with a wealth of knowledge and is very well-known in Iowa politics. But [I] don’t have any particular updates on his meeting with transition officials.” (Trump is spending this week at his Florida resort.)

JANUARY UPDATE: After a late push to find a Latino for the USDA position, Trump was supposedly leaning toward former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, according to Politico’s morning “Playbook” on January 2. Marvin G. Perez and Jennifer Jacobs reported for Bloomberg later the same day,

Perdue appears to be emerging from a broad pack of candidates. Trump and his aides have interviewed several others, including former Texas A&M University President Elsa Murano, former Texas U.S. Representative Henry Bonilla, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, former California Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, Idaho Governor Butch Otter, and North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat

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Branstad to be "unofficial" Trump adviser; Bruce Rastetter may have same role

New Jersey journalist Claude Brodesser-Akner had the scoop today for NJ.com: Donald Trump’s soon-to-be-announced economic advisers include Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and “Bruce Rastetter, a multimillionaire livestock and bio-fuel tycoon who insiders say is also a leading candidate to be Trump’s agriculture secretary.” They

will advise Trump on agribusiness and energy policy, according to a source within the Trump campaign who was not authorized to speak publicly about the move.

“There’s a clear nexus between [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie, the Branstads and Rastetter,” explained one Iowa GOP insider familiar with all three men’s dealings with one another but who was fearful of alienating the Iowa governor by speaking out publicly.

Rastetter helped talk Branstad into running for governor again in 2009 and was his campaign’s top donor in 2010. He has exerted substantial influence since Branstad returned to office in 2011, speaking to the governor “at least once a week.” Rastetter tried to recruit Christie to run for president in 2011 and endorsed him in a highly-publicized event last September. Though Branstad did not endorse any presidential candidate before the Iowa caucuses, several people close to him were involved in Christie’s campaign.

Branstad’s spokesperson Ben Hammes confirmed via e-mail that the governor “was asked to advise Mr. Trump in an unofficial role. He will be offering his advice on important issues to Iowa, none more important than renewable fuels.” Iowa Republicans have seized on a recent report by Reuters, suggesting that as president, Hillary Clinton might change federal policy on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a mandate for biofuels blends into gasoline. The governor’s son Eric Branstad is running Trump’s general election campaign in Iowa, having coordinated an ethanol industry group‘s political efforts here before the caucuses.

Hammes declined to comment on Rastetter’s possible role in the Trump campaign or a prospective Trump cabinet. At this writing, Rastetter’s office has not responded to my inquiry. The man often described as an “ethanol baron” sought to enhance his reputation as an authority on agriculture policy last year, when he organized an Iowa Ag Summit, attended by nine presidential hopefuls and a who’s who of Iowa GOP elected officials. Though Rastetter would surely want to have a strong voice in any Republican administration, I have trouble seeing him in a cabinet secretary’s role, with many public events and press availabilities. The way Trump’s poll numbers are looking lately, we will likely never find out whether Rastetter was really the top contender to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

UPDATE: According to Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman, Rastetter met privately with Trump not long before the nominee’s July 28 rally in Cedar Rapids. Excerpts from that story are after the jump, along with comments Hammes provided to Gazette reporter Vanessa Miller.

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IA-04: Joni Ernst is all in for Steve King

Today U.S. Senator Joni Ernst became the third Iowa Republican heavyweight to endorse Representative Steve King, who faces a primary challenge from State Senator Rick Bertrand in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district. Ernst didn’t just allow King’s campaign to announce her support in a statement, she also filmed a short video which I’ve enclosed below, along with a transcript.

Birds can be heard singing in the background as Ernst praises King for supporting life, liberty, the military, four-laning U.S. Highway 20, and the fuel blender tax credit. The sound you can’t hear is the door slamming on Bertrand’s already slim chance to win this primary.

Ernst served with Bertrand in the Iowa Senate GOP caucus from 2011 through 2014, so has observed his political work more closely than most Republicans. She could have stayed neutral, though seven-term incumbent King was heavily favored to win the IA-04 primary even before Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley publicly backed him.

As with Grassley’s endorsement, I wonder whether Ernst wanted to dish out some payback to Nick Ryan, the dark money operative who was recruiting a primary challenger in IA-04 and endorsed Bertrand immediately after the state senator made his campaign official.

Ryan worked for Mark Jacobs during his race against Ernst and others in the 2014 GOP primary for U.S. Senate. (Bruce Rastetter, a frequent ally of Ryan and major ethanol industry figure who is also supporting Bertrand against King, backed Ernst early in that race.)

Bertrand has been promoting himself as someone who will deliver for IA-04 in Congress, rather than trying to be a “national figure.” Last week, he asserted in an interview with the Des Moines Register’s William Petroski that there is widespread “discontentment” with King, who “has gone Washington.” Echoing that talking point, Ryan told Petroski, “I believe we can do better. I want a conservative congressman that cares more about getting things done for his district than booking an appearance on Fox or MSNBC.”

Ryan can raise a lot of money to spend on campaigns, but his track record in Iowa GOP contests is mixed. Unsuccessful candidates who benefited from spending controlled by Ryan include: Jim Gibbons in the 2010 primary for Iowa’s third Congressional district, Annette Sweeney in the 2012 primary for Iowa House district 50, Jacobs in the 2014 Senate primary, Matt Schultz in the 2014 primary for IA-03, and Mike Huckabee before the latest Iowa caucuses.

P.S.-Asked this morning whether he wants “to see King defeated” in June, Governor Terry Branstad replied, “It’s up to the voters to decide in each of these instances and I’ve always had confidence in the voters of Iowa to make a good decision and I will obviously support the Republican nominees,” O.Kay Henderson reported for Radio Iowa. Branstad made headlines by calling for Ted Cruz’s defeat less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. King was Cruz’s leading surrogate in Iowa after endorsing the Texas senator for president in November.

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Weekend open thread: Iowa Ag Summit anniversary edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

A year ago this weekend, nine presidential candidates, both of Iowa’s U.S. senators, three of our U.S. House representatives, Governor Terry Branstad, and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds were among the speakers at Bruce Rastetter’s inaugural Iowa Ag Summit. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the early front-runner in the presidential field and had just rolled out his first big batch of endorsements here. Although Donald Trump had recently hired heavyweight conservative organizer Chuck Laudner, few people expected him to be a strong contender for the Iowa caucuses. The billionaire didn’t make it to Rastetter’s event; like Marco Rubio, he initially accepted the Ag Summit invitation but developed schedule conflicts later.

Jeb Bush looked like a strong presidential contender in March 2015. He was raising money like no one else in the GOP field and had hired veteran Iowa political operative David Kochel earlier in the year. The day before the Ag Summit, the Des Moines Register ran a front-page feature on Bush that was so flattering to the former Florida governor, I felt compelled to write this post and begin work on a lengthier critique of the Register’s political coverage, which took nearly two months to complete.

Chris Christie was among the Ag Summit speakers. More than six months later, he picked up endorsements from Rastetter and several other prominent Iowa business Republicans. Christie’s poor performance on caucus night showed the limits of the would-be kingmaker’s influence, and that of others in Branstad’s orbit who had actively supported Christie’s presidential campaign.

Rastetter invited more than a half-dozen prominent Democrats to his Ag Summit. Wisely, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and all of the potential presidential candidates blew off the event. Only one Democrat spoke to the gathering: former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, in her capacity as co-chair of America’s Renewable Future. That group was formed and funded by biofuels companies and related interest groups to advocate for the Renewable Fuel Standard. (Later in 2015, America’s Renewable Future spent more than $100,000 on radio ads and direct mail attacking Ted Cruz over his stand on the ethanol mandate.)

I enclose below a video of Judge’s remarks a year ago this weekend. Near the beginning of her speech, she commented, “Let me say from the outset, I truly believe that I disagree with just almost everyone that you will see on this stage today, on almost every issue. However, I certainly hope that we do agree on the importance of maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard and keeping Iowa leading our nation forward in the development of renewable fuel.”

I doubt anyone would have predicted a year ago that Walker wouldn’t even make it to the Iowa caucuses, that Trump and Cruz would be leading in the GOP delegate count, or that Judge would enter the race against U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley.

P.S.- The Greeley (Colorado) Tribune published a good backgrounder on where all the remaining presidential candidates stand on agricultural issues.

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Iowa GOP caucus-goers deliver big hit to Terry Branstad's clout

Donald Trump was the obvious Republican loser last night. Despite leading in the last ten Iowa polls released before the caucuses, Trump finished more than 6,000 votes and three percentage points behind Ted Cruz, widely perceived before yesterday to have peaked too soon. Record-breaking turnout was supposed to be a winning scenario for Trump, yet a plurality of caucus-goers cast ballots for Cruz as attendance surpassed the previous high-water mark by more than 50 percent.

For Iowa politics watchers, another big takeaway jumped out from the caucus results: Governor Terry Branstad’s advice doesn’t carry much weight with rank and file Republicans.

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