How much do Iowans care about ethanol?

Source: By James Q. Lynch, The Gazette • Posted: Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fermenters sit in the foreground with distilation columns rising in the background on the right at Penford Products Co. facility in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. Fermenters and distillation columns are part of the process of manufacturing ethanol. The Cedar Rapids facility also manufactures industrial and food grade starches. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

One month ago it seemed like Iowa Republicans loved Ted Cruz. The Texas senator held a big lead in state polls and attracted key endorsements from leading Iowa conservatives. As the most prominent social conservative candidate running in a state dominated by evangelical Christians, Cruz appeared a lock to win the GOP caucuses. But those days are long gone. By any measure, the Cruz campaign is in serious trouble in Iowa. A new CNN poll of Iowa Republicans puts Donald Trump ahead of Cruz by a stunning 11-point margin. Worse yet, the state’s immensely popular governor has called on Iowans to vote for anybody but Cruz. And many Iowa farmers now see Cruz as a threat to their livelihood.

The list of Cruz’s problems in Iowa begins with corn, the lifeblood of the state’s economy. Strange though it might seem, about half of all Iowa corn goes to ethanol production for use in gasoline. The reason is because the federal government aggressively promotes ethanol through national transportation mandates. In 2005, following intense lobbying by agribusinesses, Congress adopted the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires gasoline to be blended with ethanol and other renewable fuels. The ethanol mandate makes no sense economically or environmentally. Economists have roundly condemned it for artificially increasing the cost of gasoline without providing any lasting benefits for the environment. The only real purpose of the ethanol mandate is to feather the bed of the farm lobby. To his credit, Cruz took on the Renewable Fuel Standard. After his election to the Senate in 2012, Cruz criticized it as a wasteful government subsidy. But he is now paying dearly for his display of courage.

On Tuesday, Iowa’s Republican governor called on voters to support anyone but Cruz. Citing the senator’s opposition to the ethanol mandate, Gov. Terry Branstad declared that “it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support” Cruz. Branstad’s intervention in the race sent shock waves through the state because the governor rarely take sides during the GOP caucuses. The fact that Branstad unloaded both barrels into Cruz marks a turning point in the 2016 race. Cruz could not have made a more powerful enemy in Iowa than Branstad, the longest serving governor in American history. First elected in 1982, Branstad has served six terms in office and wields more influence than any politician in the state’s history. Even Cruz loyalists privately concede that Branstad’s anti-endorsement poses a lethal threat to the Texan’s campaign in Iowa. And that’s not the end of Cruz’s problems in Iowa. Before the smoke had cleared on the Branstad bombshell, former Sen. Bob Dole entered the fray by denouncing Cruz as a rude and divisive extremist. The Cruz campaign immediately dismissed Dole as a 92-year-old creature of the establishment. But the retired senator is not to be taken lightly in Iowa. The Kansan’s down-to-earth style and long record of supporting Midwestern agriculture is deeply appreciated throughout the state. Indeed, he is the only GOP candidate who has ever won the state’s caucuses twice, first in 1988 and then again in 1996. In short, Dole’s opinion is taken very seriously in Iowa.

As if the broadsides from Branstad and Dole weren’t enough, Cruz’s birther issue is simmering dangerously with Iowa Republicans. Until just a few weeks ago, most Iowans assumed Cruz was born in Texas. But then Donald Trump pointed out the inconvenient fact that the senator was born in Canada. The bottom line is the chances of a Cruz defeat in Iowa grow by the day. So what does it mean if Cruz fails to win Iowa?
It’s undeniably true that Cruz still has a significant base of support in the archconservative South, no matter what happens in the Iowa caucuses. But it’s also the case that an Iowa defeat would be a grave omen for the Cruz campaign. Cruz’s core supporters are evangelical Christians, the predominant constituency in the Iowa Republican Party.