In 2016 Race, Local Matters Give Way to National Tone

Source: By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign bus outside a restaurant in New Hampton, Iowa, this month. Mr. Cruz held the Republican lead in Iowa polls despite pledging to end federal rules that require corn-derived ethanol and other biofuels to be mixed with gasoline. Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times 

In Iowa, corn is no longer king. In Florida, subsidies for the state’s powerful sugar producers are under attack. And almost all of the Republicans left in the 2016 presidential race want to abolish the Export-Import Bank, which has provided billions to one of South Carolina’s largest employers, Boeing.

In 2016, all politics is national. The hometown industries and parochial peeves that once shaped the early primary contests are rapidly losing clout this election season, overcome by the intensifying ideological cast of Republican politics and a potent anger about the economy and terrorism that has thoroughly overshadowed priorities closer to home.

In state after state, supposed third rails are losing their juice. All three Republican senators running for president voted against the most recent federal farm bill, once sacrosanct in Iowa and among the Southern voters who will decide the main Super Tuesday primaries on March 1.

When Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, declared last spring that no presidential candidates “in their right mind” would support opening the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the Republican candidates, seemed unmoved. Unless someone had a better idea, Mr. Rubio said at a campaign event a few weeks later, Yucca was “the one we should move forward on.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has surged to the Republican lead in Iowa polls despite pledging to end federal rules that require corn-derived ethanol and other biofuels to be mixed with gasoline. Mr. Cruz and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, have both proposed phasing out subsidies to sugar companies, which have contributed close to $1 million in the 2016 campaign and are a major employer in Florida.

In New Hampshire, where the most important campaign issue seems to be how often candidates show up, the leading contender, Donald J. Trump, has spent far less time there than other Republicans.

“It used to be that you had to be right on all these local issues or you wouldn’t pass the smell test in a state,” said Scott W. Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and is now a senior strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “But now you have seven out of 10 voters thinking their country is headed in the wrong direction, and these national concerns are overwhelming the parochial issues.”

One factor, some Republicans said, is the rising importance of the debates. Surveys by TargetPoint, a market research firm with Republican clients, indicated that voters have reacted far more powerfully to candidates’ debate performances than to their political ads, said Alexander Gage, TargetPoint’s chief executive.

Sugar cane being harvested in Clewiston, Fla. Mr. Cruz and Jeb Bush have both proposed phasing out subsidies to sugar companies, a major employer in Florida. Credit Joe Raedle/Getty Images 

And the debates have been far more focused on national issues like immigration and terrorism than on regional ones. (In 2008, some Republicans recalled, one debate featured a sharp exchange over how to bring down the cost of hurricane insurance in Florida.)

“Debates are the bigger driver, and they by their nature don’t focus on the local issues as much,” Mr. Gage said. “What we hear from the focus groups is, ‘It’s the country, not my state, not my town, that I am most focused on.’”

Another factor may be the shift in media consumption. Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Mr. Cruz, said more voters were getting their political news from national outlets, including conservative websites like Breitbart and The Daily Caller.

“Years ago, most of the news people got was local, so local issues dominated their news consumption,” Mr. Tyler said. “Today people get most of their news from New York-centric news organizations that focus on national and international stories.”

“People are more likely to know what’s going on a thousands of miles away than they are a mile down the street,” he added.

But perhaps the biggest force, Republican officials and strategists said, is that voters this year are paying close attention to issues like so-called crony capitalism and government spending. Some of the most engaged conservative voters, they said, are less willing to let slide a special tax break or earmarked boondoggle, even one benefiting their state.

Those views have been amplified by newer moneyed forces within the Republican Party, such as Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group overseen by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch. Last spring, the group led a multimillion-dollar campaign against the Export-Import Bank, and asked Republican candidates to oppose renewing the bank’s charter, calling the bank “poorly managed corporate welfare.”

The Republican candidate who most supported reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who dropped out of the racein December. The bank, which offers loans and guarantees to finance the export of American products, went on hiatus for five months last year before the Obama administration successfully inserted a provision in the federal highway bill to resuscitate it.

Mr. Cruz’s campaign in Iowa. He has led in state polls despite his stance on ethanol. Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times 

“Rank-and-file primary and caucus voters are angry and frustrated with the leadership in Washington, D.C., precisely because of those kinds of backdoor deals,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “They’re more willing to respond to people with the guts to take a stand.”

The strength of that response is being tested most intensely in Iowa, where Mr. Cruz hopes to become the first Republican to win the first-in-the-nation caucuses without supporting the ethanol mandate. Determined to prevent that outcome, ethanol producers have mounted a seven-figure campaign to press Mr. Cruz and other candidates on the issue.

The effort includes mailers to the homes of caucusgoers from an industry group called America’s Renewable Future and a recreational vehicle that stalked Mr. Cruz during his six-day bus tour across Iowa this month, handing out fliers at each of his appearances.

The group has attacked Mr. Cruz repeatedly, claiming that the Texas senator is currying favor with oil producers in his state and that he has changed his stance on the mandate. (Mr. Cruz once supported a bill that would have immediately ended the ethanol standard; he more recently introduced a bill that would phase it out over five years.)

“We decided to step it up this year,” said Monte Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “There’s no doubt that there are some very pressing national issues on people’s minds. But ethanol is still a relevant issue.”

Mr. Cruz’s support among likely Republican caucusgoers has dropped six points over the last month, according to a poll released on Wednesday by The Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics — a waning that Mr. Shaw said he believed partly reflected growing awareness of Mr. Cruz’s stance.

Mr. Cruz faced at least a dozen questions on ethanol from residents during his recent trip, but appeared largely unruffled. At one stop, his adviser Mr. Tyler invited reporters to watch him place a Cruz campaign sticker on the back of the ethanol group’s R.V.

By the end of the tour, Mr. Cruz had begun bringing up his ethanol position even without prompting from the audience, joking that the negative mailers from the ethanol lobby would make “great kindling” for voters’ fireplaces.

“There are a whole bunch of lobbyists and Democrats who are spending a bunch of money trying to scare folks in Iowa,” Mr. Cruz told voters, adding that the subsidy “keeps Iowans dependent on Washington.”

“That’s how they like it,” he continued, “with Iowa farmers having to go on bended knee to Washington to maintain the mandate.”