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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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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