One of the perennial certainties of any election season is how pundits chew over the politics of losing campaigns rather than discuss the policy implications of winning campaigns.
The biggest reason is the cleanliness of who’s-up and who’s-down as opposed to a messy dive into the greasy nuance of what victory means to legislative sausage making.
That is especially so for U.S. farm policy after the muddled results of the recent general election. For example, Democrats hold a weak majority in the House despite the stern whipping they took Nov. 3. One of the most prominent Dem losers was long-time Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. The 15-term incumbent was thrashed by 13 points in his rural, western Minnesota district by Michelle Fischbach, the state’s former lieutenant governor.
Similarly, the Repubs’ grip on the Senate is a slim two votes. Its Ag Committee also needs a new boss since its current chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, retires in early January.
The Senate dynamic could change Jan. 5 when two races, both in Georgia, conclude with run-off elections. A win by one or both incumbents would add to the skinny Repub majority. Two Dem wins, however, hands the Senate to their party who then would control the House, Senate, and White House.
Yes, the White House because voting results from all 50 state election officials, both Republican and Democratic, point to a White House victory by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
As such, and with or without the help of the Trump Administration, Congress and the Biden transition team now face a two-month sprint — in the middle of trillion-dollar, lame duck session that includes passing a 2021 federal budget by Dec. 11 — to outline their policy objectives and put into place the necessary staff to pursue them.
The race to chair the Ag Committee is already underway for House Dems. The three frontrunners — Georgian David Scott, Californian Jim Costa, and Ohioan Marcia Fudge — each represent a direction farm and food policy might go if selected. Scott and Fudge are stronger advocates for supplemental nutrition programs than traditional farm programs; Costa is the group’s Big Ag, status-quo favorite.
Right now, Scott leads the race; he is the committee’s most senior Dem, has committee support and received Peterson’s blessing Nov. 10. Fudge, an attorney by training and former small city mayor by choice, is a longshot but is whispered to be a candidate for Biden’s secretary of agriculture.
That leaves Costa, a self-described “third generation farmer.” While he is a bona fide farmboy, Costa has spent most of his 40-year career in public office, first in the California legislature, then in Congress.
Interestingly, none of the three have deep ties to today’s long-running federal farm programs like crop insurance, ethanol, or sugar — all key constituencies of the soon-to-depart Peterson.
In fact, when Big Ag groups realized Peterson was sinking in his reelection race, ag campaign money — almost always reserved for Republicans — poured in to help Dem Peterson fight off his Republican challenger.
It was a poor investment; Peterson got smoked, which should raise some uncomfortable questions in farm and ranch circles. Specifically, just how politically powerful is Big Ag today if it can’t pull a 30-year, rural incumbent congressman over the finish line in one of their costliest, organized, most important campaign efforts ever?
The best explanation is the most likely one: Rural America isn’t politically red because of farmers and ranchers; it’s red despite farmers and ranchers. They don’t carry the vote; they tag along.
If accurate, then Big Ag badly needs to find a more urban champion — like David Scott or Marcia Fudge — because that old rural-urban Farm Bill coalition, like the rest of the country, just moved to the city.
And, just as likely, it’s not coming back.
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