This story is part of an ongoing POLITICO series on how national policy issues are affecting the 2014 midterm elections.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Rep. Bruce Braley is betting the farm on corn — and Democrats’ hold on the Senate may be in danger if he’s wrong.
The Iowan is touting federal support for ethanol while competing in one of 2014’s most critical Senate contests — and he’s banking on his ability to champion his state’s cause in D.C., where the corn industry’s political power has waned. While critics ranging from environmentalists to anti-subsidy fiscal conservatives have turned against ethanol, Braley is busy posing at gas stations that sell the corn-based biofuel, campaigning with farmers and pressuring EPA to protect the federal mandate that guarantees corn’s role in the U.S. fuel supply.
His Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, has been more elusive on the issue — saying she “philosophically” opposes government meddling in markets but promising to protect EPA’s ethanol program until all other subsidies are repealed. That sounds like waffling to Braley supporters, an impression Ernst has tried to counteract with some pro-ethanol rhetoric this week.
Less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm for EPA’s ethanol mandate is a rare stance for any candidate in Iowa, from either party, so a perception that Ernst is wobbly on biofuels would offer an advantage to Braley. Ernst’s opponents have also attacked her for planning to attend a Washington fundraiser hosted by the oil industry, one of ethanol’s biggest opponents.
But Braley, whose campaign leans heavily on his influence in Washington, faces pressure to show he can deliver. A key test is expected in the coming weeks, when EPA announces a decision that could make or break the federal mandate that requires gasoline refiners to blend ethanol into their fuel.
People in the home-grown industry agree that ethanol looms large here, though many are still deciding where they think Ernst stands.
“I think renewable fuels can be a big issue in the race,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. Shaw, who lost a Republican House primary in Iowa earlier this year, says about 10,000 households in the state are directly invested in or employed by the renewable fuels industry, and nearly 300,000 Iowans are “pretty much directly engaged in agriculture,” he said. “That’s a lot of voters.”
“If you can’t find a senator in Iowa that supports ethanol, you’ve got a serious problem,” said Pam Johnson, a sixth-generation farmer in northern Iowa and chairwoman of the corn board at the National Corn Growers Association.
Braley expects Iowa voters to pay close attention to the candidates’ stances on the ethanol program, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard.