Iowa media shrug as Farm Bureau deploys corporate cash for Mike Naig

Iowa law prohibits corporate campaign contributions, so it seems like big news for a business lobby group to seek a “one-time investment of corporate funds” on behalf of a statewide candidate whose election “could return dividends for a decade or more to come.”

Yet media gatekeepers have mostly decided the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s plan to elect Republican Mike Naig as secretary of agriculture isn’t newsworthy.

While most print and broadcast outlets ignore the story, pro-Naig advertising that strongly resembles the Republican’s campaign messaging has reached hundreds of thousands of voters.

A full week has passed since Iowa Starting Line published the Iowa Farm Bureau memo spelling out the strategy:

  • Pool corporate cash “for a comprehensive plan to build positive name ID and improve voter information” about Naig through television, radio, and digital advertising.
  • Collect the donations after October 17, in order to conceal until after election day which Big Ag corporations are bankrolling favorable publicity for Naig.
  • Although the sole purpose of the Farm Bureau’s effort is to help Naig defeat his Democratic opponent Tim Gannon, the corporate-funded messages avoid “magic words” expressly calling on Iowans to vote for the Republican. For that reason, the advertising is not considered “electioneering,” so stricter disclosure requirements for independent campaign expenditures do not apply.

    Since Pat Rynard broke this story on October 23, I have not seen a single stand-alone news article about the Farm Bureau’s intervention in the secretary of agriculture race. The Associated Press didn’t pick up the story; that agency provides copy for numerous newspapers and radio or television newscasts. O.Kay Henderson’s backgrounder for Radio Iowa on the secretary of agriculture race did not mention the corporate cash for Naig either, ensuring that angle won’t reach listeners on dozens of affiliated radio stations.

    William Petroski devoted several paragraphs to the Farm Bureau scheme in a long overview of 2018 campaign spending for the Des Moines Register. That reporting appeared as a sidebar on page 8A of the Sunday print edition and at the end of the online version. Many readers may not make it that far.

    To my knowledge, the only other Iowa newspaper to have covered this story is the Storm Lake Times, in an October 26 editorial by Art Cullen. His columns about water quality problems and the Farm Bureau’s malign influence won a Pulitzer Prize last year.

    Since Iowans for Agriculture has spent more than $220,000 to run television commercials in the Cedar Rapids market, I expected to find some coverage of this campaign in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the area’s most widely-read newspaper. But in an October 28 Gazette column about tv ads for down-ballot candidates, political reporter Erin Murphy had only this to say about the secretary of agriculture race:

    The state ag secretary candidates also are up on TV. Republican Mike Naig, who was promoted to the job earlier this year, has a new TV ad that stresses his work in the office over the past few months, including his advocacy for expanded trade markets for Iowa farmers and businesses. Democratic challenger Tim Gannon’s first ad stresses his experience working in the federal ag department under former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, and portrays Naig as beholden to corporate campaign donors. Gannon’s ad also calls him “the only farmer” in the race; Naig was raised on a farm but has worked in agribusiness and for the past five years in the state ag secretary’s office.

    How can you report that Gannon “portrays Naig as beholden to corporate campaign donors” without informing readers that corporations are in fact executing a plan to swing the race to Naig? The Farm Bureau’s memo was not subtle: “an outside investment from Iowans for Agriculture in this campaign can affect the outcome of the election”; “Iowa farmers and agribusiness will benefit for years to come if a campaign is successful.”

    I’ve enclosed below videos and transcripts of the two pro-Naig ads now on the air. The 30-second spots hit the same themes and are similar in style: the candidate’s name and title remains on screen throughout, as viewers see clips and photos of Naig. Though ad-makers scripted the Iowans for Agriculture commercial to stay outside the legal definition of electioneering, viewers could only interpret that message as an appeal to vote for Naig. Note how often the word “support” appears near his name. The paid-for statement at the end is hard to read.

    Iowa voters deserve to know that corporations are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, without meaningful disclosure, to install their man in a statewide elected office. Unfortunately, most will remain in the dark.

    UPDATE: Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Todd Dorman featured the Farm Bureau strategy in a November 1 column titled, “Big Ag rushes to raise cash for Naig.”

    If the secretary’s office is worth buying, it sure must be worth winning. The next secretary will be a key player in debates over water quality, livestock rules and other big issues. Naig’s positions are dependably similar to the Farm Bureau’s party line.

    He heaps praise on the weak, warmed-over water quality bill backed by the bureau and approved by the Legislature, tossing more money at status quo efforts with no more accountability for results. He opposes raising the sales tax to fill the voter-backed Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which could provide a much larger, permanent source of conservation money. Gannon favors filling the fund.

    Although we won’t have a list until after the election, it’s a good bet among those kicking in to boost Naig are some of the usual suspects who’ve opposed truly meaningful water quality efforts — with real bench marks, goals and timelines backed up by required monitoring — and giving locals a say on livestock confinements. There’s money to be made in fully fertilized and under-regulated Iowa. Also known as “dividends.”

    Rynard reported on October 31 that Iowa Select Farms has donated $25,000 toward this effort.

    Iowa Select Farms has faced significant public criticism in recent years for their role in adding to Iowa’s water and air quality problem. They operate over 500 factory farms in Iowa, and have tried to greatly expand their hog confinement locations in recent years.

    The company is also responsible for a number of manure spills over the past decade that have impacted Iowa’s waterways:

    The latest donor report shows the 527 group has received $250,000 from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation and $6,000 from the Iowa Turkey Federation PAC. Meanwhile, the Agribusiness Association of Iowa said in an e-mail to prospective donors that Iowans for Agriculture hopes to raise an additional $400,000 to influence the secretary of agriculture race.

    Appendix 1: The commercial Iowans for Agriculture is airing on Cedar Rapids-based television stations. Gannon’s campaign provided this video, as I haven’t been able to record the spot.

    My annotated transcript:

    Female voice-over: Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig knows our farmers do more than just grow food. They fuel Iowa’s future. [viewer sees photos of Naig with the words “MIKE NAIG Secretary of Agriculture” on screen]

    One out of every five jobs in Iowa depends on agriculture. [footage of farm scenes; “MIKE NAIG Secretary of Agriculture” remains on screen]

    From technology to manufacturing to engineering and so much more. [photos of Naig meeting with various people; “MIKE NAIG Secretary of Agriculture” remains on screen]

    That’s why Mike Naig’s work to support Iowa’s families and open up new markets for Iowa goods is so important. [candidate’s name remains on screen, along with “Support IOWA families” and “New markets for IOWA goods”]

    Mike Naig is helping create quality, family-supporting jobs for the next generation. [more photos of Naig, with “Family supporting JOBS for the NEXT GENERATION” on screen along with his name and title]

    Mike Naig: growing Iowa’s future. [photo of Naig with his family; “MIKE NAIG Secretary of Agriculture Growing IOWA’s Future” on screen in large, green letters. “Paid for by Iowans for Agriculture” is in much smaller, white letters near the bottom of the frame]

    Appendix 2: The ad Mike Naig’s campaign is running on Des Moines stations.

    My transcript:

    Naig’s voice: As secretary of agriculture, I have fought to develop markets and expand opportunities for Iowa’s livestock producers, crop farmers, and our businesses. [footage of Naig in various settings, words “MIKE NAIG Secretary of Agriculture” on screen]

    Free trade is critically important to our state. It provides markets for our farmers’ products and jobs for Iowans. [footage of Naig interspersed with farm scenes; candidate’s name and title remain on screen]

    So whether you live in town or in the country, [footage of a small town, then a farm; name and title remain on screen]

    Democrat or Republican [footage of Naig speaking at an event; then a clip of Governor Kim Reynolds talking to Naig and patting him on the arm; name and title remain on screen]

    we’re all Iowans working together to build a stronger future. It is a privilege to serve as your secretary of agriculture. [clips of Naig in small-group settings; name and title remain on screen]

    I am Mike Naig, and I would appreciate your support on November 6. [Naig smiles and looks at camera, standing in front of barn; name and title remain on screen]

    legally raise corporate funds to influence the election with no donor disclosure until after the election.

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    • Thanks for reporting on this

      Unfortunately, and it’s no joy to say it, this is about what I’ve come to expect from the DM REGISTER. While some REG staffers provide occasional happy surprises, the REG is no longer the newspaper it used to be. But I would have expected better from the CR GAZETTE.

      One extremely tiny silver lining is that at least these ads don’t proclaim Naig to be a grand and glorious savior of Iowa water quality. Unlike Naig himself and his press releases.