Republican politics — especially the presidential primary — have become a contest of appealing to the far right voter by demonstrating conservative street cred.

That’s why it was fascinating to observe Saturday’s awkward march of Republican candidates to the Iowa State Fairgrounds to articulate their position on the Renewable Fuels Standard — a government handout for those turning corn into fuel — commonly referred to as the RFS. The politicians were there on the invitation of ethanol and hog baron Bruce Rastetter for the first ever Iowa Agriculture Summit.

The RFS is a federal government mandate for biofuel production. Nationally, Republicans view other federal mandates — like one for health insurance (Obamacare) — as apocalyptic symbols akin to draping the sun in sackcloth.

Saturday’s converts to the church of government-supported biofuels include Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Lindsay Graham, George Pataki, and Mike Huckabee. Rick Perry and Jeb Bush were squishier on their corn ethanol views, trying to find the elusive hole in the needle by praising agri-fuels while not committing Uncle Sam’s support in perpetuity. Ted Cruz was the only candidate with an emphatic and consistent thumbs down to mandates.

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Rastetter leveraged Iowa’s outsized status in our political process as a means to run candidates through his ethanol gantlet. The fact that most Republicans on Saturday endorsed the equivalent of welfare for corn is the most salient demonstration of Iowa’s political influence. As Bill Maher said:

No one asked for corn in their gas tank … But I suppose if the first presidential primary was in Vermont, we would all be pouring maple syrup into our gas tanks.

So what’s riskier for candidates who spoke at the Iowa Ag Summit — alienating Iowa primary votes with conservative stands on agriculture subsidies and ethanol mandates like Ted Cruz, or angering principled conservatives by pandering to agriculture interests like more than half the candidates did?

“On the whole, I envision this event as nothing more than a cringe-worthy forum in which presidential hopefuls real and imagined try to outdo each other in increasingly ridiculous feats of pandering,” said Baylen Linnekin, the libertarian president of the Keep Food Legal Foundation. “Frankly, that’s something most of these politicians and the reporters who cover them needn’t leave the nation’s capital to do.”

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Despite criticism from the libertarian right, it’s unlikely that any of the hopefuls will suffer for telling Iowans what they want to hear, said Francis Thicke, a farmer and a candidate in 2010 for Iowa’s agriculture secretary.

“You would think there would be a conflict between supporting ethanol mandates and agricultural subsidies on the one hand and conservative principles on the other, but presidential candidates have been getting away with doing just that in Iowa for decades,” said Thicke. “They pop into Iowa and pander to industrial agriculture and then go on to New Hampshire and proclaim, ‘Live free or die.'”

“Can I respectfully disagree with the word pander?” said Monte Shaw, executive director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, when I asked him about this. “If I was running for president, I’d keep in mind the goal is not to win the Iowa caucus or the Republican nomination; the goal is to become the next president. Winning the Iowa caucus helps and being the nominee is obviously a key step but you ultimately want to win the general election. And we know that Iowa is a swing state and you do not win Iowa if you oppose the RFS.”

While Shaw realizes it’s still early in the process, he’ll ensure candidates that stray from the RFS herd feel electoral pain. “Ultimately, by January 2016 there will be a naughty and nice list,” he said.

Here’s why the RFS matters

The federal Renewable Fuels Standard, which was passed in 2005 and beefed up in 2007, requires transportation fuels to contain a minimum volume of biofuel (it goes up every year — in 2014 it was a little under 20 billion gallons). The bulk of mandated biofuels is derived by converting millions of acres of corn into ethanol. The RFS has successfully injected wealth into some pockets of rural America. It also sparked an environmentally destructive conversion of prairie and conservation land to commodity crops.

But the crucial thing to remember is that the RFS is not energy policy, it’s agriculture policy.

The RFS was initially conceived as a way to create a new market for American farmers. And viewed through the prism of how the RFS increased farm income across the Corn Belt, this weekend’s spectacle at Iowa State Fairgrounds makes sense.

There were other issues that came up when I talked to Iowans and politicos about this meeting: immigration, GMO labeling, the farm bill. But the RFS was the focus, because it’s so effective in delivering government cheese to Iowa.

A missed opportunity for Democrats?

Former secretary of state and uber-cautious presumptive candidate Hillary Clinton rightly viewed speaking at the summit as an all-risk, no-reward prospect. The crowd at the event wouldn’t likely vote for her and Democratic ticket holders are alleging they were denied access.

But someone else eyeing the Democratic nomination (or a run in 2020) could have made a name as the “food candidate.” The candidates who spoke were given time and space. A Democrat unconstrained by the shackles of conservative ideology could have easily acknowledged in the affirmative the issues giving Republicans fits like the RFS, farm subsidies, and immigration. Then they could have knocked the RFS off its political axis and focused on issues championed by the “good food” movement like farmworker justice and better access to healthy food.

Ricardo Salvador, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, keyed in on an important demographic shift, even in what is derisively labeled as “flyover” country.

“It is important to remember that the majority of the population of Iowa is urban, and that those urban citizens have an outlook and concerns more similar to those of their counterparts in cities throughout the nation, than to the narrow interests of concentrated crop and livestock operations that are polluting their water and air,” Salvador said.

Iowa Republicans like Craig Robinson, founder and editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican blog, agreed. “Iowa has not been kind to Hillary Clinton. If I was Democrat, I would have come to this, not to kowtow to Republican talking points, but to have discussion about agriculture and really set themselves apart.”

Though some Democratic activists like Bleeding Heartland blogger Des Moines Dem viewed the summit as a trap with little consequence for skipping. “I don’t believe that skipping the Iowa Ag Summit will hurt Democrats seeking support in the Iowa caucuses or from Iowans in the general election,” said the blogger, who writes anonymously.

Conventional farm interests with tangential connection to ethanol just want more political conversation about the future of Iowa agriculture. “Whoever the Democratic nominee is, whether its Hillary Clinton or someone else, something has to cause them to have a deeper conversation about agriculture issues. Once you get to the general election, it’s very difficult to do,” said Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Growers Association.

The sad fact is that by blowing the opportunity to talk food and agriculture to a group of farm country voters — Republican or not — the move underscores the common yet erroneous theme that Democrats don’t care about rural America.

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