Democratic presidential contenders make plays for rural votes

Many of you think it's planting season, but in the world of politics, it's presidential campaign season. That means you're going to start hearing a lot more about how President Donald Trump and a field of more than 20 Democrats plan to make life ...


Many of you think it's planting season, but in the world of politics, it's presidential campaign season. That means you're going to start hearing a lot more about how President Donald Trump and a field of more than 20 Democrats plan to make life better for those of you who farm and live in rural America.

Some proposals will be more detailed than others. The most comprehensive plan to date comes from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Speaking in Osage, Iowa, recently, he outlined several proposals, including breaking up big agribusinesses and enacting a moratorium on mergers by large agriculture companies. He also called for scrapping current farm programs in favor of a word we haven't heard much about since the 1980s - parity. He wants to set price floors and limit the amount of crops and livestock products sold so farmers will be guaranteed the cost of production. It's a very comprehensive plan, including support for immigrants already in this country, more funding for rural broadband and a $15 minimum wage.

Sanders, who lost the 2016 Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, enters the race with a lot of name recognition and a strong base but he's already polling behind former Vice President Joe Biden - a familiar and comfortable face to many moderate Democrats.

Unlike Sanders, Biden supported many of President Barack Obama's trade policies, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But he's not yet rolled out many specific 2020 rural policy positions. Here's one nugget from his campaign web site:

"Climate change threatens communities across the country, from beachfront coastal towns to rural farms in the heartland. We must turbocharge our efforts to address climate change and ensure that every American has access to clean drinking water, clean air, and an environment free from pollutants."


Several candidates have records of pushing bills or taking votes directly dealing with agriculture policy or rural issues. For example, Sen. Cory Booker has introduced legislation opposed by animal ag groups but supported by the Humane Society Legislative Fund. In February, Booker, who is a vegan, told, "the planet simply can't sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of its environmental impact." During the 113th Congress, Booker supported legislation prohibiting the slaughter and export of horses for meat consumption. He has also supported strengthening protections for federal lands and public wilderness areas.

Booker is also known in ag circles for his efforts on checkoff reform with Utah Republican Mike Lee. Their bill - which the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said was pushed by "militant vegans" - would ban checkoff groups from contracting with organizations that lobby on farm policy, but it has not become law.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is climbing in recent polls. He supports the concepts of the Green New Deal and the climate package introduced by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Buttigieg told Fox News Sunday that the time to start curbing carbon emissions was "yesterday."

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration, Julian Castro, has been strategizing to win over rural Iowa Democrats and minorities living in smaller towns. He's traveled the state pushing his "People First" immigration policy, which focuses on a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, something the dairy sector in Northwest Iowa heavily relies on. He's also pushed to improve psychiatric care in rural hospitals to improve mental health.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has taken a hard-line stance on climate change, telling reporters in Iowa last month it is the "greatest threat to humanity." Most recently, Gillibrand blamed climate change for the recent flooding along the Missouri River. Gillibrand has touted the Green New Deal as a starting point to improve the climate but says more needs to be done.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California has a record supporting legislation to protect migrant agriculture workers. In 2017, she supported Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Agricultural Worker Program Act, which Feinstein reintroduced in January. The bill protects farmworkers' document status, while allowing them to work toward a path to citizenship. In February, Harris reintroduced the Fairness for Farmworkers Act, which would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to grant overtime protections to workers who work more than 40 hours a week.

Harris pushed for increased trade promotion funding in the 2018 Farm Bill but joined a letter opposing House-passed environmental language during the conference process. She voted for the final bill.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has a great deal of ag policy experience - from working with farmers in her state and serving on the Senate Agriculture Committee. She has agreed with other candidates on breaking up agriculture monopolies and has also stressed the importance of battling climate change. On trade, she would push for finalizing trade deals quickly because government payments are "not the same as selling things" for farmers. She says humanitarian issues also must be addressed when negotiating trade deals, which she claims Trump has neglected. Klobuchar recently visited a Nevada, Iowa, ethanol plant where she assured the ethanol industry she would continue to invest in the renewable fuels industry while also maintaining the Renewable Fuel Standard.


Former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke has a limited record on farm policy, but campaign literature makes broad mentions of improving broadband, rural health care, and ag sector profitability. "Let's make sure farmers can make a profit while they grow the food and fiber that feeds and clothes not just this country but the world," his campaign site says.

O'Rourke voted against the House version of the 2018 Farm Bill, joining the rest of his party in opposition. His rationale for voting against the bill came down to cuts to SNAP, the

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and concerns for "deep cuts to conservation programs and renewables." However, he did support provisions in the bill to reauthorize programs supporting farmers facing low commodity prices, and he voted in support of the conference report in December.

Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, said she would hold major agricultural companies accountable by taking on consolidation. "I want an America that not just works for those at the top, but everyone," Warren said this spring at a Heartland Forum in Iowa.

In a document detailing her ag policy priorities, Warren highlights consolidation, including potentially undoing mergers such as Bayer-Monsanto, something she says "should never have been approved."

Warren argued for passing "disaster relief to help anyone who's been hit by a natural disaster," which she said meant getting help to farm country. But she - and other Senate Democrats vying for the presidency - voted against disaster relief funding before Congress adjourned for a two-week April recess. Democrats want to see more financial assistance for Puerto Rico before they vote for disaster relief.

These are just a few of the more than 20 Democrats already in the race, with more expected to join the race. Whoever wins the nomination likely will be pitted against Trump, whose deregulatory policies and judicial appointments have been popular in farm country. But some of the same voters thrilled with things like Waters of the U.S. repeal also are growing increasingly weary of the president's trade policies, putting downward pressure on commodity prices.

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Sara Wyant
Sara Wyant

Sara Wyant
Sara Wyant

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