IA-Sen: Warning signs for Joni Ernst

Iowans haven’t voted out a sitting U.S. senator since 1984, but several recent events have caused political observers to question Senator Joni Ernst’s strengths going into her first re-election bid.

Inside Elections changed its rating on Iowa’s 2020 U.S. Senate race from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican” this month. (Sabato’s Crystal Ball already rated the IA-Sen race “lean R,” while the Cook Political Report still sees a GOP hold likely.) Writing at the National Journal on October 20, Josh Kraushaar cited several “major red flags suggesting Iowa is a much bigger battleground than Republicans anticipated at the beginning of the year.”

Ernst told supporters at a closed-door fundraiser with Vice President Mike Pence this month that she is the fifth most-vulnerable senator, according to Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg News.

What’s going on?

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Trump's EPA punishes renewable fuels and farmers

David Weaver farms in Greene County and was the 2018 Democratic candidate in Iowa House district 47. He wrote this commentary after October 1, when Reuters reported that the Environmental Protection Agency had halted work on biofuels policy adjustment, and before October 4, when the Trump administration announced an agreement on the Renewable Fuel Standard. Republicans hailed the plan, while Democrats described it as vague and inadequate. -promoted by Laura Belin

Well, you have to wonder when a farmer from Rippey decides that it is time to challenge the statistical findings of an economist (and a well known and very well-respected economist like Dave Swenson), but here is my mighty swing at explaining why the ethanol industry’s problems are a demand-driven crisis, not a supply-driven crisis as Mr. Swenson contends.

My initial premise is that the sky is NOT falling. Rather, the ceiling has been lowering itself at a steady rate since Donald Trump took office and installed his EPA leadership. The demise of three Iowa ethanol plants during the past month are merely the first indications of the straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Our biggest ethanol problem? There’s too much of it

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson challenges the conventional wisdom on a hot political topic. -promoted by Laura Belin

The sky is falling and Midwest rural economies are in danger of collapse. So say the nation’s ethanol producers, corn farmers, and like-minded politicians.

Their collective fingers are pointing at the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s granting of 31 waivers to U.S. refineries lowering the amount of biofuels they are required to blend into the petro-fuels they distribute. The waivers, the stakeholders claim, are the cause of a string of biorefinery closings and idlings.

Working through this, however, does not lead one to necessarily conclude that the infamous 31 waivers are the chief culprits.

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MidAmerican's bid to crush small solar creates strange lobbying bedfellows

MidAmerican Energy’s effort to crush small-scale solar generation made it through the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” and will be eligible for floor debate in both chambers. The House Commerce Committee on March 4 approved House Study Bill 185 (now renamed House File 669) without amendment on a party-line 12 to 10 vote. The Senate Commerce Committee amended the companion Senate Study Bill 1201 before advancing it on March 7.

The bill will likely pass the upper chamber, where Republicans have a 32 to 17 majority. Although Republicans outnumber Democrats by 54 to 46 in the House, and MidAmerican’s political action committee donated to dozens of incumbents’ campaigns last year, getting the solar bill through the lower chamber will be no easy task. A utility-backed bill to undercut energy efficiency programs was one of the heaviest lifts during the 2018 session. Only after several concessions did supporters cobble together 52 Republican votes in the House. The GOP held 59 seats at that time.

More than three dozen corporations, industry groups, or advocacy organizations have lobbyists registered for or against MidAmerican’s solar bill. While it’s not unusual for a high-profile bill to draw that kind of attention, the two camps seeking to persuade legislators on this issue reflect alliances rarely seen at the statehouse.

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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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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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