"It's a little bit like asking Silicon Valley voters why they're voting for Democrats when they're so strongly capitalist," said Will Rodger, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau. "I think the only answer is, it just depends."
State farm bureaus typically take their direction from rural county representatives, many of whom are making their recommendation on many other issues—farm-related or not.
"Based off of our county-level support, our PAC didn't really have a choice but to go with Joni," said Lance Bell, the Iowa Farm Bureau's PAC chairman. "It definitely comes back to our members' comfort level with that candidate from a personal standpoint.... We didn't have anything in particular" against Rep. Bruce Braley, Ernst's Democratic opponent, "we just didn't have the counties' support that we could have even considered him."
In addition to many farmers' cultural conservatism, that comes down to a host of ag issues besides the farm bill. Rodger listed climate change, the Endangered Species Act, trade issues, genetically modified organisms, food safety, and immigration as top policy issues facing the Farm Bureau. A regulatory battle over the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement of the Clean Water Act under President Obama has some farmers outraged about regulatory overreach.
Some of the state farm bureaus have also given less weight to views on the farm bill in their midterm endorsements because the current legislation will last until 2019. The Iowa Farm Bureau's questionnaire for statewide candidates this year didn't include a single question about the farm bill because it had already passed, said Bell.
Farm-state Democrats have certainly tried to peel off traditionally conservative farmers over the legislation, which divided Congress more than in past years. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has pitched the farm bill as the work of Democrats in campaign appearances with Braley in Iowa, Rep. Gary Peters in Michigan, Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, and Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Many of those same candidates received support from the more Democratic-leaning National Farmers Union, which counted farm-bill-related votes on eight out of 10 of their score-card measures this year. Braley also secured the backing of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, much to the outrage of some conservatives.
But across the map, many of the groups representing farm interests (a traditionally Republican bunch) have been reluctant to jump ship.
Democrats in Arkansas have spoken eagerly about the backlash they expected after a viral audio clip caught conservatives cheering Rep. Tom Cotton's bold vote against the bill in a farm-heavy state.
"This guy is running for the Senate [while] actually voting with 61 Republicans in the House to vote against the farm bill—in Arkansas," Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said to an applauding audience at the Koch brothers' California retreat.