How Republicans Lost the Farm

The Tea Party has pulled the GOP away from the interests of rural Americans—some of the party's most loyal constituents.


On a recent Monday in San Antonio, Texas, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, got up to speak to an auditorium full of farmers. Vilsack, a doughy, wavy-haired former governor of Iowa, wore a grim expression as he gripped the lectern.

"My mom used to caution me to have patience. She'd say, 'Patience, Tommy, patience,'" Vilsack said. "My mother never met the 2013 Congress."

The group Vilsack was addressing, the American Farm Bureau Federation, is the nation's largest farmers' organization, with more than 6 million member families from all 50 states. It is perhaps the most influential player in the American agriculture lobby, which spends more than $100 million each year to influence Congress. Through its state chapters and their political-action committees, the bureau also wields influence in state capitols and elections up and down the ballot. In San Antonio, 7,000 members had gathered for their annual meeting to hear from Vilsack and discuss what they wanted out of Washington.

The members of the Farm Bureau—an overwhelmingly conservative, strongly Republican group—have traditionally gotten what they wanted, between all that lobbying and politicians' never-ending appetite for paeans to the nobility of rural life. But these days, thanks to the Tea Party civil war that has stoppered the House of Representatives, that is not the case.

Vilsack laid out the contemporary American farmer's lament. For more than a year, the agricultural legislation, known as the farm bill, whose implementation is his agency's major task—the complicated scheme of price supports, crop subsidies, insurance provisions, and food-stamp assistance that undergirds American farming, from feed corn to dairy cows to sugar, peanuts, fruits, and vegetables—has been stalled, the victim (though Vilsack did not put it in these terms) of Republican infighting in the House of Representatives. As a result, a growing season marked by drought, snowstorms, and record cold temperatures had passed without the disaster relief on which farmers have traditionally relied. The Department of Agriculture was unable to fight a trade dispute with the Brazilian government that could threaten farming patents. And while temporary extensions had kept the farm bill from expiring altogether, those, too, would run out on January 31, potentially sending milk prices skyrocketing to as much as $8 per gallon. House Republicans also have blocked farmers' other major priority, immigration reform, resulting in labor shortages, unpicked crops, and even farms abandoned when there weren't enough workers to reap their harvest.

"You all understand this," Vilsack told the farmers. (A Farm Bureau member in good standing—he brandished his card from the podium—Vilsack owns, and receives farm subsidies for, a 592-acre farm in southern Iowa.) But, he continued, "It may be necessary for us to have a wider audience of folks who understand and appreciate what this farm bill does, not just for producers but for all of us in this country."

Because of the tremendous productivity of American farming—and the support provided it by the federal government—Americans need not fear famine, Vilsack said. Our farmers and ranchers produce all the food we need and then some, he noted, and we buy it more cheaply than citizens of any other nation. "Every American should be concerned about the fact that we don't have a farm bill," Vilsack said. Whether in urban, suburban, or rural areas, he urged, people ought to be calling their congressmen and senators and urging them to get it done.

The failure of the farmers' agenda is a familiar tale of Washington gridlock, with familiar players: the small group of conservative obstructionists who seemingly control the House, and the policy consequences of a Republican Party at war with itself. But in this case, the people Republicans have antagonized are among their most loyal constituents. Rural America is the party's base. Mitt Romney overwhelmingly won its support in 2012, taking 61 percent of rural voters, according to exit polls. (Romney won 58 percent of small-town voters, 50 percent of suburban voters, and just 36 percent of residents of cities with more than 50,000 occupants.) Now the GOP, hamstrung by its right wing's anti-government zeal, risks breaking faith with its rural stronghold.

Republicans may already have paid a political price for the Tea Party's derailment of policies important to rural voters. In the summer of 2012, when the House refused to consider the Senate-passed farm bill, the issue became a point of attack for Democrats who won several red-state Senate races—a subplot of the elections that flew beneath the radar of most Washington observers. And that was before the House spent 2013 delaying farm policy further, leaving agricultural interests intensely frustrated. In 2014, that frustration could hurt Republicans in dozens of House and Senate races.

The farmers' disenchantment with Washington is about more than just a special interest angry that its traditional government assistance is threatened. It's about the deepening divide between rural and urban America. Isolated, shrinking in number, and cast out of the cultural mainstream, rural America now finds itself politically abandoned as well, as the party that once represented its interests is increasingly dominated by a more urban, libertarian, ideological strain.

In the three days I spent talking to dozens of farmers and their representatives at the Farm Bureau convention, a sense of grievance and resentment was a steady undercurrent. Vilsack, who was preceded onstage by an acoustic duo from Tennessee called Pork and Beans who played a song called "Farm Strong," echoed the theme of disconnection in his speech. "My guess is if I took a survey of the folks here today, you might feel that agriculture is not as appreciated as you believe it ought to be," Vilsack said. "I would share that feeling. The reality is, so many Americans are so far removed from where their food comes from. They may be three or four generations removed."

It is only because a small minority of Americans—less than 1 percent—continue to toil at farm work that the rest of the population has the freedom to pursue its dreams elsewhere, Vilsack said. "And folks, that ought to be celebrated," he said, punching the air with an index finger. "The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated, and thanked."

Vilsack was followed onstage by Alan Robertson, a member of the cast of the A&E reality show Duck Dynasty. Robertson, a preacher, had previously been distinguished from the rest of the cast by his lack of facial hair, but he had grown a short salt-and-pepper beard for the show's upcoming fifth season. He wore black pants and an untucked blue shirt with a pen in the chest pocket. "You realize that we have generations now that don't understand the concept of home, or family, or faith," he complained. "We got people growing up in huge neighborhoods in metropolitan areas that have no idea what you know, what I know."

Robertson's father, Phil, the show's star, had recently ignited a national debate over the political and cultural divisions between red and blue America with derogatory comments about gays and blacks in GQ. Robertson seemed to be alluding to the controversy when he said, by way of conclusion: "A lot of people are unsure what to do. Watch the show. That supports us." The crowd rose to its feet, applauding, as Robertson walked offstage with his arm raised.

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It has long been the case that nobody in Washington liked the farm bill—except Congress. Left and right alike view it as a wasteful relic that distorts markets and leads to the misuse of land. But to lawmakers primarily concerned with bringing home the bacon, the argument was not between Democrats and Republicans; it was between lawmakers from different regions, battling over whose favored commodities got what benefits from the law. Corn and wheat fought with rice and sugar, dairy farmers with milk processors, north with south—but for 75 years, Republicans and Democrats alike mostly declined to question the underlying idea behind farm policy.

Today's farm bills have two components: food stamps and farm subsidies. That combination has traditionally helped the bill secure the votes of both urban liberals who want to feed the poor and rural conservatives looking to aid farmers. The Farm Bureau supports both components. But the Tea Party and their ideological allies object to both parts, seeing food stamps as an extension of the welfare state and farm subsidies as needless pork-barrel spending. Like many conservatives, farmers may dislike the idea of government handouts in theory. But when it comes to the ones that benefit them, they feel differently.

American farm policy originated in the Great Depression, as the federal government sought to ensure that another season of bad weather wouldn't mean another Dust Bowl. In 1970, Democrat George McGovern and Republican Bob Dole exchanged heated tirades on the Senate floor over the Vietnam War—then worked hand in hand to get the farm bill passed. Partisan acrimony was set aside as politicians came together to support American farmers and American food.

In 2012, that tradition of bipartisanship suddenly and shockingly collapsed. In June of that year, as Romney campaigned for the presidency and a little-known conservative named Ted Cruz began to gain in the polls in a Texas GOP primary, the 2008 farm bill was about to expire. The Senate passed a new farm bill in routine bipartisan fashion. But House leaders, reportedly worried that passing a bill with a trillion-dollar price tag would draw criticism from small-government conservatives, would not even put the bill on the floor for a vote. As the months dragged on, the agricultural community reeled from the realization that Congress—specifically, the Republican-run part of Congress—might simply ignore its most cherished priority. Finally, at the end of the year, a stopgap was passed instead, extending the 2008 bill by one year, giving lawmakers that long to resolve their differences.

In June of 2013, the Senate again passed a farm bill. House Republicans proposed a version that would cut more than $20 billion from the food-stamp program over 10 years. They then added an amendment that would add tough new work requirements for food-stamp recipients. The changes to food stamps were too much for Democrats. Yet the bill was still not pure enough for the conservative pressure groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth, which have made common cause with the Tea Party's right-wing tilt. They urged Republicans to vote against the bill. With 62 Republicans joining most Democrats in opposition, the bill was voted down.

Embarrassed by the bill's failure, House leaders acceded to conservatives' demand that farm subsidies be split off from the food-stamp piece of the legislation. Both pieces passed with zero Democratic votes. Ever since, a team of congressional negotiators—two Democrats and two Republicans from the House and Senate, the leaders of each body's agriculture committee—has been working behind closed doors to come up with a compromise palatable to the House and Senate alike. For Vilsack and the farmers he addressed—and, they would argue, for every American who depends on the country's food system—it is a vital matter.

For the past month, the talks have been stuck on how much food-stamp funding will be cut and on an arcane matter involving government control of milk production. In a recent interview, Vilsack told me he was optimistic about the negotiations but annoyed by the impasse. "It's frustrating, because so much good can occur with this particular bill, and there are so many problems if it doesn't get passed," he said. "I'm anxious to get it done. If this thing falls apart, we'll all be blamed." With Friday's deadline looming, the negotiators are said to be close to a deal, which could be announced as soon as Monday.

* * *

The long blockage of the farm bill has been a source of anguish to agricultural interests. But to both the liberals and conservatives who see agricultural legislation as fundamentally corrupt, it's about time Congress subjected farm policy to greater scrutiny. To the ideological right, traditional farm policy is unwarranted government meddling in what ought to be a free market. "I don't think that we need central planning and government handouts to have a sound agriculture policy," Daren Bakst, an agricultural-policy expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, told me in an interview from his Washington office. In his view, the Depression-era policy of federal government support for the food sector is badly out of date. In the 1930s, more than 20 percent of gainfully employed Americans worked on farms, according to the Census. And yet, per capita, their income was just a third of what Americans earned for nonfarm work. Buffeted by weather and without the benefit of modern planting, irrigation, and harvesting technology, farming was a matter of subsistence and, often, abject poverty.

Today, farmers make up just 2 percent of the work force, and they are better off than many other Americans. More and more farming is done by agribusiness conglomerates, while family farms are bigger and more profitable. According to the Census, farm households' income in 2010 averaged $84,400—25 percent higher than the national household average. Meanwhile, government-subsidized crop insurance minimizes the risks farmers face. In 2012, despite a historic drought across much of the country, farmers recorded record profits. Federally subsidized crop insurance compensated farmers for the crop failures caused by the drought at a rate based on the higher prices created by the shortage. "Farm subsidies," as a pair of scholars at the libertarian Cato Institute argued in a 2012 op-ed, "are welfare for the well-to-do."

Farm subsidies may be associated in the popular imagination with the perverse practice of paying farmers not to till their land. Though that was once the case, it's not how farm policy is structured anymore. A landmark 1996 reform, dubbed the "Freedom to Farm Act," ended most planting restrictions and phased out most of the price supports and supply controls that had sheltered American crops from market forces. Recognizing that farmers had become dependent on those programs, the law replaced them with direct payments—cash handouts for farmers, totally independent of what they farmed, how much, or indeed whether they farmed at all.

The idea was that these payments would only be a temporary bridge to a brave new world without subsidies. But farmers understandably found they liked the free money from the government, and they lobbied to keep it, even as a new system of subsidized crop insurance that was supposed to replace the payments was phased in. In the 2002 and 2008 versions of the farm bill, lawmakers reupped the direct payments created by the 1996 law rather than allowing them to run out, even as they increased spending on other agricultural supports. The 1996 reforms, Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, told me by phone from his office in Ames, Iowa, "were supposed to phase out all farm subsidies." Cox worked on the 1996 bill as a Democratic staffer to the Senate Agriculture Committee. "But the absolute opposite happened."

The heavily subsidized crop-insurance system that now constitutes farming's main safety net is, in Cox's view, a massive handout to insurance companies who are largely cushioned from any risk in insuring farmers by taxpayer guarantees. And farmers' insusceptibility to risk encourages them in turn to plow ever-more dubious pieces of land, much of it environmentally sensitive: If the crop fails, well, taxpayers will just pick up the tab. Taxpayers, according to EWG, pay 62 percent of the average farmer's crop-insurance premium. The government also pays crop-insurance companies directly, at a cost of $1.3 billion per year, to sell and service policies. (At the Farm Bureau convention, Nationwide Insurance was one of six "platinum sponsors," along with the agribusiness giant Monsanto and the tractor-maker John Deere.) In 2012, the Corn Belt's unprecedented drought led to an insurance payout of $18 billion in crop indemnities—$14 billion of it taxpayer-funded. The insurance companies, in what should have been a terrible year for them, made a profit.

In a strange-bedfellows confluence, the liberal conservationists of Cox's group find themselves allied with the conservatives at Heritage and Cato on many points of agriculture policy. Left and right alike charge that programs billed as a safety net to protect farmers from the vicissitudes of nature are instead an increasingly cushy hammock. The Senate-passed version of the new farm bill would eliminate direct payments but fortify crop insurance and extend generous provisions to commodities such as peanut and dairy farmers. "It's good to see direct payments being repealed, but as usual, Congress didn't stop there," Bakst lamented. Cox called it "an incredibly cynical bait and switch."

The farm bill's liberal and conservative critics part ways when it comes to food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Nearly 48 million Americans received food assistance in 2013 at a cost to the government of $76 billion. Food stamps constitute 80 percent of the farm bill's cost, spending that has been targeted by House conservatives as wasteful. It was their zeal to trim food stamps that first led House Republicans to derail the farm bill in 2012.

Though experts attribute the rise in food-stamp spending to the recession (the Obama Administration has tried to expand food-stamp eligibility, but failed), conservatives have attacked it as a massive extension of the welfare state. During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, Newt Gingrich called Obama the "best food-stamp president in American history," promising, if elected, to be a "paycheck president" instead. The version of the farm bill approved by the House would cut $40 billion from SNAP over 10 years, versus $4 billion in the Senate version.

The farm lobby's main concern is with the agricultural subsidies in the farm bill. But it also opposes the food-stamp divorce performed by the House. This is partly a matter of political necessity. Just 35 of the 435 congressional districts have agriculture as their dominant industry. "In our opinion, if you separate the two, you would no longer have a farm bill," Bob Stallman, the president of the Farm Bureau, told me. Farmers have another interest in continued food-stamp funding. The SNAP payments constitute another massive subsidy to food producers, giving consumers the money to buy their products. "Food stamps have become a large part of the demand for the food that we raise as farmers," Don Villwock, the white-mustached president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, told me. "When you have one in five Americans on food assistance, that's 20 percent of the demand for food in this country."

In favoring a farm bill that combines agriculture supports with food stamps, the farm lobby parts ways with the GOP's ideological right wing, and sides with the Obama Administration, which has disappointed environmentalists by not aggressively seeking farm-policy reforms. (The agribusiness sector spent $112 million lobbying Congress in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—more than the defense industry. The Farm Bureau alone employs 52 Washington lobbyists.)

The dynamic is similar when it comes to immigration reform to legalize the millions of illegal workers currently living in the U.S. and create new guest-worker programs. The Heritage Foundation and a hard-right faction in Congress oppose such a policy. But farm leaders paint a grim picture of crops rotting on the vine, and even farmers giving up their land, because of a shortage of workers. In a survey conducted by the California Farm Bureau, 71 percent of tree-fruit growers and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers couldn't find enough pickers.

"There is a myth that somehow Americans will go out and do farm work," Stallman, a rice and cattle producer from Columbus, Texas, told me in an interview. The Farm Bureau's leader for 14 years, Stallman also served as a trade official during the George W. Bush Administration. With his bald pate and neatly trimmed chin-strap beard, he resembles a genial, Texan Ben Bernanke. "Every time that has been tested—and we're not talking about minimum wage, we're talking about paying people $15 or $20 an hour—they don't stick with it. They don't show up." Without immigrant labor, he said, farmers can't survive.

The Tea Party wing of the GOP has set itself against the sort of business-as-usual bipartisan compromises that would otherwise enable both a farm bill and immigration reform to pass. Stallman does not hide his frustration with the Tea Party's rise to prominence. "There obviously is a fight for the soul of the Republican Party now," he said. "Are you going to be about moderation, pragmatism, and good governance, with a conservative flavor? Or are you going to be rigid and ideological about your conservative principles and not really focus on governing? I truly believe that some in that particular faction would just as soon see the government shut down."

I asked Stallman what the consequences could be if Republicans continue to ignore the agricultural community's needs. "This isn't the first time in history that political parties have had schisms," he said. "Sometimes, if they don't come back together, you have new political parties." He drew a parallel with the realignment of the South from Democratic to Republican dominance in the past several decades. "If the Republican Party moves to a place where it no longer mirrors the viewpoints of any segment of rural America," he said, "there will be a switch, I would predict."

* * *

If the Tea Party's raison d'etre was to tilt against business as usual, to take on corrupt special-interest nest-feathering at the taxpayer's expense, to disrupt the lockstep collusion of the major parties, the farm bill was a perfect case in point. And so it was perhaps fitting that, during the senatorial campaigns of 2012, the Tea Party's top Republican primary target was the onetime chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the corn-and-soybean farmer who wrote the Freedom to Farm Act: Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.

The farm bill was not the primary sin against conservatism cited by the Tea Party groups that lined up against Lugar and for his challenger for the Republican nomination, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. They objected to his votes in favor of federal spending, bank bailouts, immigration reform, and liberal Supreme Court nominees, and his close partnership with then-Senator Barack Obama on arms control. At 81 and living mostly in Washington after 36 years in office, Lugar was also easily depicted as out of touch.

But agriculture was an issue in the primary contest as well. If Mourdock stood for the Tea Party's rigid ideological tilt against all forms of government spending, Lugar's bipartisan, spending-heavy work on agriculture over the years was symptomatic of his moderate, conciliatory profile. In fact, farm issues propelled Lugar into politics as a young man, he told me in a recent interview. Indignant at the planting limits his father faced on the family's corn and soybean farm, he vowed to do something about it.

In the primary against Mourdock, Indiana farmers rallied to Lugar's side: The state's Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations endorsed and campaigned hard for him. "I wish the primary were held among farmers," Lugar told the Muncie Star-Press at one point, marveling at Mourdock's opposition to ethanol. "We would do abnormally well." But farmers were outnumbered by conservative activists who flooded the Republican primary. Lugar—who had faced neither Republican or Democratic opposition in his 2006 reelection, which he won with 87 percent of the vote—lost the primary by 22 points.

In the general election, Mourdock faced a Democratic congressman named Joe Donnelly. The race made national headlines when Mourdock averred, in a debate, that pregnancies resulting from rape are "a gift from God" and shouldn't be aborted. Mourdock's loss in November, in a state Romney won by 10 percentage points, became a parable for socially conservative Republicans' tendency to alienate women voters. But here again, largely out of the spotlight, agriculture also played a role. Donnelly routinely assailed Mourdock on farm issues, saying that his support from groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks that opposed the farm bill meant that Indiana farmers wouldn't be able to count on him. The Indiana Farm Bureau endorsed neither general-election candidate.

Today, Lugar is sorely missed by the farmers and their lobbyists. He appeared at the Farm Bureau convention to collect a Distinguished Service Award. But in Donnelly, a conservative Democrat, Indiana farmers have found someone they can deal with, the Indiana Farm Bureau's Villwock told me. The same cannot be said of the state's leading Tea Party congressman, Representative Marlin Stutzman. Though himself a farmer who receives federal subsidies, Stutzman has been one of the leading proponents in Congress of separating food stamps from farm provisions. "As a pragmatic matter, it just won't work," Villwock told me. "I would say we need more folks in Congress like Senator Lugar who are able to bring folks together, rather than drive wedges and throw darts and each other."

Lugar's was not the only red-state Senate race Democrats unexpectedly won in 2012. In Missouri, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill criticized Republican Todd Akin, then a member of Congress, for his farm-bill votes. Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jon Tester of Montana both blasted their opponents, Republican House members, for their caucus's obstruction of farm legislation. McCaskill, Heitkamp, and Tester all prevailed in farm-heavy states that Obama massively lost.

Farm lobbyists, finding Republicans no longer receptive to their pleas, have begun to look elsewhere for support. The Texas Farm Bureau, for example, faces two Republican senators—the archconservative Cruz and the minority whip John Cornyn—who have both voted against the farm bill. Shut out in its own state, the Texas bureau has instead begun spreading its political donations to Democrats in other states who work on agriculture issues, including Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, and Donnelly, of Indiana. The Texas Farm Bureau has also lent financial support to pro-farm Republicans in other states who could be the Lugars of 2014: Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Senate agriculture committee, and Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee's former top Republican, both of whom face Tea Party primary challenges. "In a general sense, yes, less government is better," the Texas Farm Bureau's legislative director, Steve Pringle, told me. "But there are certain things that the federal government has to do"—namely immigration policy and the farm bill.

If farm policy was a sleeper issue in some 2012 elections, it stands to be even more influential in 2014. After the farm-bill antics of 2013, farmers are far more frustrated today than they were in 2012. And Democrats in House and Senate contests across the map have picked up the issue, as the prominent agriculture writer Jerry Hagstrom recently noted. Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat seeking to unseat Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, has run a television ad accusing him of "hurting Kentucky farmers" by voting against the farm bill. Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas has attacked his opponent, Republican Representative Tom Cotton, for his farm bill vote. I recently received a fundraising email from John Lewis, a Democratic congressional candidate in Montana, that began, "The U.S. House doesn't care about renewing the farm bill, and Montana's farming and ranching communities are hurting as a result."

Some in the farming community hope the Republicans who have betrayed them will finally pay a political price this year. Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas represents more farmers than any other congressman, according to Barry Flinchbaugh, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, who lives in Huelskamp's district. (Flinchbaugh, a longtime adviser to Congress on farm policy, speaks to hundreds of farm groups every year; his speaker biography says he is "to Ag policy what Tiger Woods is to golf.") "But he votes no [on the farm bill], because Heritage and the Club for Growth tell him to vote no," Flinchbaugh told me. "Frankly, he pays more attention to them than he does to the Kansas Farm Bureau. That would have been unheard of even as recently as the 2008 farm bill."

This month, a local lawyer and former member of the Kansas legislature announced he would challenge Huelskamp in the August Republican primary, calling his run "a patriotic duty." Agribusiness interests are already lining up behind the challenger. Huelskamp, who ran unopposed in 2012, also has a fairly strong Democratic opponent. Kansas's first congressional district, a seat that once belonged to Bob Dole, has not elected a Democrat since the 1950s, Flinchbaugh pointed out. "But Congressman Huelskamp is very, very controversial, and his farm bill vote has made a lot of headlines. I think maybe we're starting to wake up."

* * *

If farmers are driven into the arms of the Democratic Party, it will not be because they've suddenly become liberals. Socially, culturally, and on most economic matters, they are an extremely conservative group. The Farm Bureau is staunchly opposed to Environmental Protection Agency regulation and has taken a position against the Affordable Care Act. The group has argued that human-caused climate change is a fiction, and it strongly supports traditional marriage. (When, at last year's convention, a gay Farm Bureau delegate from Hawaii requested that the group's positions be made gay-friendly, he was immediately voted down.) The president of every state Farm Bureau is a man. In three days at the convention, I saw a single African-American attendee.

Democrats these days often talk about becoming a more urban, progressive party, embracing social liberalism and class-conscious economic policies. But if agricultural issues have indeed turned some rural residents against the Tea Party, Democrats owe their majority in the Senate to voters like these in states like North Dakota and Indiana.

In conversation, the rank-and-file Farm Bureau members were often bracingly right-wing. Many departed from the official position of the bureau's leaders to decry food stamps. Their opposition to Obama was virulent. I sat at a table on the floor of the convention's trade show with a South Carolinian named Joye Davis, surrounded by enormous displays of power tools, tractors, livestock fencing, and no less than five Chevy Silverado pickup trucks. A trailer sponsored by Nationwide Insurance contained a miniature Dallas Cowboys hall of fame, complete with a real live former Cowboys player, Jay Novacek. Monsanto was holding a drawing to give away iPad Minis.

Davis and her husband, Julius, both in their 60s, farm corn, peanuts, cotton, and wheat in Sumter County. She told me she thought putting food stamps into the farm bill had confused the public, making them think farm subsidies were a form of welfare, when nothing could be further from the truth. Obama, she said darkly, wants to give handouts to "his people," most of whom are not really needy but "have figured out how to beat the system."

"I have seen on the street signs that say 'Obamaphone,'" she said. "I pay for mine, but it's a free phone for them." (The myth that the Obama Administration has created a program to give taxpayer-funded cell phones to poor people is commonly repeated on right-wing talk radio.) Farm payments, on the other hand, were something landowners had earned. "I work for what I have," she said. "So I have a sore spot about that." Later, I found the Davises in the Environmental Working Group's farm-subsidy database. They had received at least $108,000 from the government between 1995 and 2012.

For decades, Republicans paid lip service to smaller government and the free market while making sure farmers like these still got the payouts they felt they deserved. But the rise of the Tea Party and its ideological abettors has caught farmers in the middle. Rural conservatives may have cheered the Tea Party as long as the government spending that it opposed was helping someone else. But the right went too far, in their view, when it blocked farm policy. The farm bill may soon make its way through Congress after a year and a half in limbo—and Republicans can expect a backlash for its long delay.