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Democrats make play for rural voters at Iowa forum

Former Iowa governor and ag secretary Tom Vilsack says presidential candidates need to articulate their vision for rural America.

by Mike Dorning

Elizabeth Warren issued a call to arms while Amy Klobuchar made an appeal to unity as Democratic presidential candidates offered different messages they hope will chip away at President Donald Trump’s support across the Farm Belt.

Warren, who’s called for breaking up tech behemoths and large agricultural corporations, cast her campaign as “about standing our ground and fighting back” during a rural issues forum Saturday in Storm Lake, Iowa. She targeted “giant corporations that are making bigger and bigger profits” while “putting the squeeze on family farmers.”

Klobuchar, a senator from neighboring Minnesota, cast her Midwestern sensibility as an antidote to a president “that divides us,” promising she would “emulate that community spirit we see right here in Iowa.”

Democrats are eager to make inroads in rural America, Trump’s strongest territory, as economic strains already in place are exacerbated by the president’s trade policies. Combined with natural disasters and low commodity prices, U.S. net farm income plummeted 16% last year, to nearly half of what it was as recently as 2013.

These issues are top of mind for residents who’ll vote in February’s Iowa caucuses -- the first contest to whittle down the many Democrats lining up to win their party’s nomination.

Warren, one of the most progressive candidates, said family farmers’ situation and rising economic inequality in the nation demand “big structural changes” and a platform of antitrust populism.

Trust Buster

Warren, who recently called for breaking up technology giants such as Amazon.com Inc., is calling for a similar approach to the big agricultural companies. She attacked Bayer AG’s acquisition of seed and chemical giant Monsanto Co., and promised to mount an antitrust suit to reverse the merger.

At a time the Democratic Party is tilting left, Klobuchar has positioned herself as a political moderate. She presented herself as a pragmatist capable of delivering for constituents and summoned her Heartland bona fides, quoting from the Future Farmers of America creed and joking in a reference to 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that she can “see Iowa from my porch.”

Klobuchar joined Warren in calling for tougher antitrust policy and bemoaned “a new Gilded Age.” But the Minnesotan said her highest priority is a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan she released ahead of Saturday’s forum, which would focus on rural broadband internet, transportation, and clean energy, among other priorities.

Obama administration official Julian Castro also appeared at the forum, brushing aside questions from reporters afterward about his lowly status in early polls. “There are a lot of people in this country right now that don’t feel like a front-runner, and I’m going to go out and speak to them,” he said.

Democratic strategists are debating how much to focus the 2020 campaign on the Midwest’s rural and blue-collar voters in a bid to to wrest back Wisconsin and Michigan, and possibly Iowa and Ohio. Those states, along with Pennsylvania, voted for Trump after Democrat Barack Obama carried them twice.

Sun Belt Strategy

An alternative strategy is a path through the Sun Belt to capture North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, which would rely more on galvanizing those states’ growing minority populations.

Lopsided support from rural areas was a key to the narrow Trump victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that gave him his 2016 Electoral College majority. He carried rural and small-city voters by a 28-percentage point margin, while in 2008 Obama limited the Republican advantage with this same constituency to 8 percentage points, according to exit polls.

Tom Vilsack, Obama’s secretary of agriculture and a former Iowa Democratic governor, said the party’s presidential candidates have to find a way to once again narrow the gap in rural areas. “If they don’t do that, they’re going to have to do really, really well -- I mean really well -- in those suburban and urban counties,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Trump’s Springboard

Iowa is the largest U.S. hog producing state and the biggest U.S. corn producer, and rural voters play an out-sized role in its influential caucuses. Winning Iowa launched Obama’s candidacy in 2008 and helped Trump stand out in a crowded 2016 Republican field when he came second to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Forty-four percent of Democratic caucus delegates were from Iowa’s rural counties in 2016.

Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections offer the party some hope. Democrats flipped two U.S. House seats in Iowa held by Republicans, and now hold three of the state’s four Congressional districts. They also won governor’s races in Wisconsin and Kansas. Democrats even came within about 3 percentage points of ousting Representative Steve King, a conservative who has represented the northwestern Iowa district -- which includes Storm Lake -- for 16 years.

Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the local Storm Lake Times and a moderator for Saturday’s forum, said “there’s a pretty strong ripple, if not a wave” of discontent in this meat-packing town of about 10,600 people ringed by corn and soybean fields and hog farms.

Unabated Anxiety

“A lot of farmers are having trouble talking to bankers right now about seed and chemical purchases,” Cullen said in an interview before the forum. “There’s a lot of anxiety in rural America right now that hasn’t abated, in fact I think it’s become worse since Trump became president, with the trade wars with China and Mexico and Canada.”

Severe flooding this month in Nebraska and neighboring states have further strained farm country. Though other parts of Iowa have been hit harder, the area around Storm Lake has been declared a federal disaster area, with spring planting delayed and gravel roads washed away, Cullen said.

Eager to boost their profile, Democratic candidates have already started making the traditional drive along prairie highways to the small towns of Iowa. ”They’re showing up, which is good,” Vilsack said.

“The next question is what do they have to say, how are they saying it,” said Vilsack, interviewed before the forum. Rural voters watching hospitals and nursing homes close, schools consolidate, and young people leaving for a chance at a better life elsewhere want to hear more than policy talking points from candidates, he said.

“At some point they need to articulate the vision of what rural America is going to look like if they are president, or what they aspire to,” Vilsack said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net Anna Edgerton, Ros Krasny

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P

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