For Trump, hints of trouble in ethanol country

Source: By By Art Cullen, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, November 3, 2019

A tanker truck sits outside the POET ethanol biorefinery in Gowrie, Iowa, in May. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
A tanker truck sits outside the POET ethanol biorefinery in Gowrie, Iowa, in May. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Democratic congressional candidate J.D. Scholten rumbled his RV to a stop in the gravel a mile east of Pomeroy, Iowa, (pop. 612) on Tuesday. A man got out of a car blocking the road ahead and flagged down the aging Winnebago that serves as Scholten’s headquarters and road unit.

John O’Brien of Fort Dodge marched up to Scholten’s window and stuck his mitt through for a shake. “Need a driver? I’m retired now. Just bagged two pheasants,” he explained.

Scholten, a 39-year-old former semi-pro pitcher, was out on a 14-county “Don’t Forget About Us Tour” targeting Iowa towns of 1,000 people or fewer in his uphill climb against Rep. Steve King, the anti-immigrant Republican who dabbles in white nationalism.

King’s hokum has earned him four GOP primary opponents next June. Last winter, House leadership stripped King of his committee assignments for the latest in a 20-year string of outrageous comments about Mexicans, gays and the superiority of white northern European cultures. King’s base here remains solid. Pro-life voters stand with him in this land of German Catholics, stoic Lutherans and Dutch Reform enclaves for whom abortion is the main, if not the only, issue. His public shaming serves King well as an embattled populist foil to the Washington elite who rig the game against us out here amid the swaying dry corn of northwest Iowa.

Scholten gave King, 70, a scare last year in an election that saw Democrats take the House. In Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 70,000. Scholten finished 10,000 votes short. “Last time I thought we could win,” Scholten said. “This time I expect we will win.”

While much of the state is in the throes of harvest, Scholten says he smells something in the corn dust. Farmers here are unhappy with President Trump for granting 31 petroleum refineries waivers from federal requirements that they blend corn ethanol into their gasoline. Corn prices dropped not long after. Former governor Terry Branstad, now ambassador to trade-conflicted China, warned Trump not to grant the waivers. Trump did it anyway. “They screwed us,” Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the state’s senior senator, admitted. (Corn prices are still up about 20 cents a bushel from last fall, near the break-even point for most growers.)

Now, two of state’s 54 ethanol and biodiesel plants have shut down while others have reduced production or are on “hot idle,” and ethanol prices have dropped since the waivers took effect. Meanwhile, the trade war knocked the price of soybeans off by one-third; China was Iowa’s biggest agricultural export market. Trump-voting farmers who serve on ethanol cooperative boards swear they will not be hoodwinked again. That gives the Democrats a chance — if only a chance — to take back a House seat here in Iowa’s most conservative corner.

Keith Kuhrt was among 29 folks who turned up in Pomeroy willing to listen and volunteer. “I’m totally for J.D.,” said Kuhrt, who works at a Valero ethanol plant about a half hour away from here in Fort Dodge. “He’s not King.” A dozen more showed up at Early, Iowa, (pop. 523) later that night. Early is in King’s home county. It could scarcely be redder. Those are strong turnouts a year ahead of the election. They warmed to Scholten’s populist call for antitrust enforcement in agribusiness, universal health care and a fair shake for forgotten places. Their questions were about ethanol, rising health-care costs and rural development. Nothing about impeachment.

Scholten senses a wave. People are fed up with King, Trump and $12-an-hour jobs with a $5,000 deductible on the health plan, he says. Scholten thinks Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg will be duking it out to win the Iowa caucuses in February, “but it’s really still a wide-open field.” Buttigieg organizers attend each of his events, signaling that they intend to do battle along the rural routes. He invited all the presidential candidates on his tiny town tour, but only Cory Booker took him up on it.

“You win by getting out there and talking with people,” Scholten says. “I don’t bash Steve King at the convenience store. I talk about that tin cup on the counter to pay for somebody’s medical bills. We talk about how we are better than that.”

It seems to be working, when men with shotguns on gravel roads ask how they might help, and Dutch farmers swear they will not vote for Trump or his acolytes. There is unrest in the towns that Trump forgot.

 Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa. He is author of the book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.”