Farm Bill Politics Hit House-Race Ads

As the bill heads to the floor, Republicans have already targeted Democratic opposition.

House Agriculture Committee members (from left) Darren Soto, Collin C. Peterson, Tom O'Halleran, Chairman Mike Conaway, and Rep. Al Lawson craft a farm bill which includes an overhaul of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program on April 18.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Clearfield
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Alex Clearfield
May 3, 2018, 8 p.m.

Republicans hope the twice-per-decade farm-bill fight provides an effective cudgel against rural Democrats, and the party took its first step last week to bring the issue to the fore.

The National Republican Congressional Committee released three similar digital ads hitting House Agriculture Committee members Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, and ranking member Collin Peterson of Minnesota for their opposition to the bill, which passed out of the committee on April 18 by a party-line vote.

The ad’s narrator accuses Peterson—who cited cuts to rural development, animal health, and conservation programs among his issues with the agriculture section of the broad bill—of siding with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi over farmers. While the other two spots are the same, an NRCC official told National Journal that agriculture-based ads will in the future delve more into district-specific issues, rather than simply serve as a mechanism to tie Democrats to Pelosi.

As Republicans seek to hold the House majority despite potentially strong midterm headwinds, the party will need ads to cut through the clutter of focus on President Trump.

One Arizona Republican consultant, who said he was not a fan of the NRCC’s initial “cookie-cutter” farm-bill ads, said he wasn’t sure the issue would be a deciding one in a cycle like this.

“There’s so much noise coming out of Washington that it becomes less and less relevant,” the consultant said, saying that in a more “conventional” cycle it could be effective.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, who chairs Heartland Engagement for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Adam Sheingate, chairman of the political-science department at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on agricultural politics, both said this year’s farm-bill process has been more partisan than in prior iterations.

But Sheingate said the political consequence for voting against the bill in committee, which the ads focus on, is limited since the bill’s trajectory wasn’t altered. And Bustos isn’t concerned that a member’s opposition will be a detriment.

“It is incumbent upon every member on the Agriculture Committee who knows exactly what went down in the negotiations to go out and tell our family farmers the truth,” she said.

O’Halleran’s race in Arizona’s 1st District, which encompasses the rural northeast and central parts of the state as well as tourist destinations Flagstaff and Sedona, could provide the best measurement of the issue’s potency.

The freshman is the most endangered Democrat not just of the three ad targets but arguably in all of the House. O’Halleran is the only incumbent whose seat, which Trump won narrowly in 2016 as O’Halleran faced scandal-ridden opponent Paul Babeu, is rated by The Cook Political Report as “Lean Democrat” or in any more-vulnerable category.

While none of Maloney or Peterson’s Republican challengers had even $40,000 in cash on hand by the end of March, all three of O’Halleran’s challenges—farmer Tiffany Shedd, former candidate Wendy Rogers, and state Sen. Steve Smith—had more than $200,000. O’Halleran reported $885,000 on hand, and has outraised each by some $1 million this cycle.

The congressman cochairs the Blue Dog Coalition’s Rural America Task Force, but he’s not the only one in the race with rural credentials. Shedd and her husband farm 600 acres of cotton and wheat, which are among the state’s biggest cash crops, and she has been involved in state and county-level agricultural organizations.

Shedd told National Journal that the agriculture community “really likes the farm bill.” She cited Pinal County, which is in the 1st District and is among the top cotton-producing counties in the country, as a constituency that would benefit from passage of the bill. The National Cotton Council supports the House bill.

In an interview, O’Halleran defended his record on agriculture and said the bill is “counterproductive” to the farming community, He also cited cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding as harmful for the district; per the Almanac of American Politics, 16 percent of 1st District residents are on SNAP, above the 13.5 percent level for the state.

“The farm community is pretty savvy. …They know when they see a bad bill,” O’Halleran said, unconcerned about his vote.

It’s not just traditional farming that is getting attention in the district. Shedd said the bill’s conservation title will be a “big issue,” pointing to the ongoing Tinder Fire southeast of Flagstaff that has burned more than 11,000 acres.

“The whole mountain area is under smoke,” she said. “Small business owners rely on tourism in the summer.”

The Tinder Fire highlights the intense regionalism of agriculture issues. International Dairy Foods Association CEO Michael Dykes warned that a broad Republican focus on simply opposing the farm bill may not be effective, while a GOP consultant in the state echoed Dykes and said the fire was the kind of farming-adjacent issue that could rise above the noise.

The House bill includes an amendment to expedite certain wildfire relief applications.

The farm bill attacks could be undercut by the cycle’s other major agricultural issue, the threat of Chinese tariffs on crops and livestock. Analysts have already pointed to hogs in Iowa, as well as soybeans in Iowa, Illinois, and the upper Midwest, as tariffed farm goods that could affect competitive races.

Shedd said she wasn’t overly concerned about tariffs from China, saying crop insurance measures in the farm bill could help cover losses. “There’s other markets we can pursue,” she said. “There’s hungry people all over the world.”

Bustos disagreed, saying tariffs won’t “be a winning issue for them.”

“It’s all about the pocketbook,” she said.

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