No farm bill? No problem. That's the unexpected message from some of the nation's largest farm bureaus to Republican Senate candidates this year, several of whom got endorsements after either voting against or disavowing the biggest piece of legislation affecting the industry.
Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, who said during her primary that she would not have voted for the 2014 farm bill, has a roster of endorsers including the Iowa Farm Bureau, two of its former presidents, and the Iowa agriculture secretary, who recently appeared in a pro-Ernst TV ad. In Nebraska, the farm-bill-hating Club for Growth and the state's powerful Farm Bureau, which endorsed the measure, united behind Republican nominee Ben Sasse. Longtime agriculture champion Sen. Pat Roberts ruffled feathers in the Kansas Farm Bureau when he voted against the bill this year ahead of a stiff primary challenge, but Roberts retains its support.
Democrats had hopes of using the issue to drive apart traditionally conservative voters and Republican Senate candidates in some states. But GOP farm bill opposition just hasn't picked up much traction with local advocacy groups, highlighting a simple fact: Farmers are not a single-issue constituency even though the farm bill plays an outsize role in agriculture policy and politics—and on top of that, totally separate from farm policy, they just lean Republican as a group.
"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.
Yet Arkansas's farm bureau, which was disappointed with his vote, predicted Cotton wouldn't lose much support over the issue.
"Certainly we know where [Cotton] voted on that issue, he was the only one from our delegation to vote against it," said Arkansas Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Eddington. "The congressman came to our candidate forum and addressed his vote "¦ sure some people may prioritize that, but I don't think you can paint farmers in Arkansas with a broad brush."
Kansas's Farm Bureau, which was also disappointed in their senator's vote, is not only backing Roberts for reelection but is providing get-out-the-vote efforts on his behalf for a race against independent candidate Greg Orman, who has said he would have supported the farm bill.
"It's true that his voting record this year, especially in the later portions of this session, did not meet the Farm Bureau's approval, and he knew it, and we told him so," Kansas Farm Bureau President Steve Baccus said. "We felt like we needed a farm bill, we needed some direction, we especially needed the crop-insurance portion, but we understand his options to target prices. Those things happen. People back here like Senator Roberts a lot."