Midwest Farmers May Lose Clout in 2024

Iowa Farmer Sees Lost Voices With DNC Move to Change Presidential Election Calendar

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, at the White House in September during a celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act. During the Iowa Caucuses, Lehman interviewed several presidential candidates who made the effort to attend the Iowa Farmers Union convention. Midwest farmers may lose that opportunity with a shift in the Democratic presidential primary calendar. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Farmers Union)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Midwest farmers may lose an opportunity to hear from Democratic presidential candidates and lose a chance to educate those left-leaning politicians on agriculture as well with the push by Democrats to change the 2024 primary calendar.

Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, found himself on stage all day at his annual meeting in December 2019 as his members hosted six Democratic presidential candidates in one day who talked about an array of farm issues.

Among the candidates who took time to specifically attend that event were three current U.S. senators -- two who sit on the Senate Agriculture Committee -- and the current U.S. secretary of Transportation.

"During the last caucuses, the future Secretary of Transportation was going up and down our rural roads and over our bridges and talking about infrastructure issues. When is that going to happen now?" Lehman said. "Our current vice president from California, where there's not a lot of corn raised for ethanol, routinely had to talk about biofuels issues, and the need for that to fit into energy plans and climate plans. When is that going to happen?"

Farmers such as Matt Russell, now the Iowa state Farm Service Agency director, found himself being interviewed by the New Yorker magazine in 2019 over his efforts to bring now Vice President Kamala Harris to his farm to talk about agriculture and climate change, as well as Texan Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and other presidential candidates.

"People like farmers, so we have a much bigger political footprint than we demographically should," Russell told the New Yorker at the time. "When candidates engage the farmer narrative, they aren't just talking to farmers. They are talking for a bigger part of the community."

Russell also co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about what Democrats need to learn to win in rural America. "The Iowa caucus offers Democrats an opportunity to hone their pitch to rural America. Some of the biggest problems around here are in agriculture and trade -- yet in those areas, several candidates seem clueless," Russell co-wrote with Bob Leonard, an Iowa radio host.

After a push by President Joe Biden, the Democratic National Committee voted last week to scrap Iowa's 50-year reign as first-in-the-nation for choosing a Democratic presidential nominee and instead lead off with South Carolina.

Iowa is not only less diverse demographically than South Carolina, but Iowa also has become increasingly Republican as well. GOP leaders in Iowa are now among the most vocal calling for Democrats to defy their national committee and hold early caucuses anyway.

"Regardless of what the DNC says, I encourage the Iowa Democratic Party to move forward with its plan to follow Iowa law and hold Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses just as the Republican Party of Iowa is doing," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa's senior Republican elected official.

Fellow Iowan Sen. Joni Ernst, who appeared on Fox News Sunday, said the Democrats have given middle America the "middle finger."

Iowa Democratic leaders, expressing their disappointment, pointed out Iowa state law requires them to hold a caucus before the last Tuesday in February, and before any other contest.

"Small rural states like Iowa must have a voice in our presidential nominating process," said Ross Wilburn, the Iowa Democratic chairman. "Democrats cannot forget about entire groups of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing significant damage to the party for a generation."

If the DNC calendar holds, it will be a lost chance for farmers to express their views to Democrats because candidates spend so much time in the early states that doesn't happen after the first ballots are cast.

Lehman added the current Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also heard about farm tax issues from the perspective of Midwest grain and livestock farmers. Beyond the actual candidates themselves, their staffs, campaign consultants and journalists learn about rural issues as well.

"All of those things tell me that the Midwest ag perspective will be missing from this calendar," Lehman said. "Each of the campaign staffers had to prepare Midwest agriculture issues for all of these candidates. So, they had to do it more than just a surface level ad that is being prepared for the campaign to run. They had to be prepared for someone who was going to have conversations -- impromptu conversations, face-to-face conversations -- very routinely. So that perspective is missing."

President Joe Biden didn't make that 2019 Iowa Farmers Union forum, but he did tour the state a week earlier on his "No Malarkey" tour. At an event in Ames, Iowa, one of the first questions asked to then-candidate Biden was about declining farm income. Biden pointed out at the time that 44% of Iowa farmers were unable to pay their basic bills. Biden said that's a reflection of the real trouble facing the middle class in rural America.

"There's something going on here with the middle class," Biden said in December 2019. "We have to have the middle class stay in rural America."

Being first in the nation in Iowa has always meant a slow buildup of events the entire year before the crescendo of caucus day. In Iowa, the first major agricultural forum was held at a college campus in Storm Lake, Iowa, nearly 11 months before the Iowa caucuses. That forum drew hundreds of rural Democratic activists from around the Midwest to hear six candidates, including two current U.S. senators.

While a lot of farm groups also may be more aligned with conservatives, National Farmers Union and its state members are more left-leaning. Yet, NFU doesn't have a state chapter in South Carolina.

"Anyone who follows farm bill discussions will tell you that the difference between Midwest agriculture issues and southern agriculture issues are profound," Lehman said. "There are a lot of commonalities, yes. But there are some real practical and philosophical differences. And so having that Midwest ag perspective, and Midwest rural perspective, I think is going to be missing in a very dramatic way."

Once the first primary or caucus kicks off, there just isn't time for a group of presidential candidates to meet and greet at farm meetings or candidate forums in the same way, Lehman noted. He pointed to an example of the Wisconsin Farmers Union trying to put together a forum similar to what Iowa did in a closely contested state. But Wisconsin's primary is sandwiched with other states right before and after and there just wasn't a way to get the same kind of commitments.

"Ultimately, they really weren't able to do it," Lehman said.

Matt Russell interview in the New Yorker https://www.youtube.com/…

New York Times op-ed https://www.nytimes.com/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton