If Ted Cruz has a major vulnerability in his quest to win the Iowa caucuses, it may be this: corn.
Amid plentiful global supplies, the price for the Hawkeye State's top crop is down. That's putting pressure on Iowa farmers, even after they have gathered what appears to be a record harvest this year. It could also put a damper on Cruz's recent surge there.
In a state whose farm economy has become closely tied to ethanol, an alternative fuel made most commonly in the U.S. from corn, Cruz finds himself the target of attacks from a pro- ethanol group that happens to be led by the son of Iowa's governor. Iowa, which hosts the first nominating contest with its Feb. 1 caucuses, is the nation's top corn and ethanol producer.
"Cruz is the most anti-ethanol, anti-renewable fuel, of all the candidates," Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said Wednesday in an interview at Bloomberg's headquarters in New York. "Conventional wisdom says he should win in Iowa, but his record is something that shows hypocrisy on this issue."
America’s Renewable Future, the pro-ethanol group led by Branstad's son, Eric, has made the senator from oil-rich Texas its Public Enemy No. 1.
During the past week, the group has been running statewide a 60-second radio ad critical Cruz, part of a three-week campaign that includes radio, digital and direct mail. "Politicians like Ted Cruz support subsidies for big oil, but want to end support for ethanol," the radio ad says. "Cruz backs policies that threaten rural Iowa and thousands of jobs."
Cruz, who has unsuccessfully requested that radio stations stop running the spot because his campaign considers it unfair, has argued that he opposes all forms of energy subsidies and wants to help find ways to open more markets to ethanol. "You shouldn't have government picking winners and losers," he told reporters Saturday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Coinciding with his recent rise in Iowa polls, Cruz has drawn the ethanol industry's anger primarily because of his position on the Renewable Fuel Standard. It sets the minimum amount of ethanol and other biofuels that must be included in the nation's gasoline supply.
The senator was a co-sponsor of legislation that would repeal the standard. Earlier in the year, he also rubbed salt in the wound by touting his stance on the issue as proof that he won't change his positions to appeal to voters in early-voting states.
This week, America’s Renewable Future noted that 15 of 16 candidates for president, including Republicans and Democrats, have either toured a biofuel plant or met with group's leadership. "The only candidate missing from the roster is Senator Ted Cruz, whose staunch opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in favor of the oil industry has made him a target for ARF," the group said in a statement.
The timing of the attacks comes as ethanol supporters are already feeling dinged following an announcement last week by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that set a lower-than- hoped-for target for how much ethanol must be mixed into the nation's gas supply.
"This is a very modest increase, but it's not enough to make a real difference, and so it's going to keep the price of corn well below the cost of production," Branstad told Bloomberg.
ARF, a non-profit, was formed to organize around the ethanol issue ahead of the caucuses. The group has 17 field staffers across the state, more than many of presidential campaigns, and is active in each of the state's 99 counties.
The organization also says it has pledges from more than 50,000 people to attend the caucuses, with slightly more than half of those being Republicans. That's a big group, considering roughly 122,000 attended the 2012 Republican caucuses.
"They've got a whole army of people that are working on this," Branstad said, adding that the state has 43 ethanol plants.
"A lot of these people are people who have never caucused before," he said of those who've signed pledges. "They are workers who work at these ethanol plants whose livelihood depends on it."
Jamie Johnson, a former Republican Party official in Iowa who played a national role in the failed campaign of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, said the ethanol group's attacks could hurt Cruzamong the large proportion of voters who remain undecided.
"It will hurt Cruz significantly with those who have him on their shortlist," he said. "Ethanol is the third-rail of electoral politics in Iowa and if you touch it, you die."
Johnson speaks from experience. He shepherded Perry, who opposed the Renewable Fuel Standard, around Iowa earlier this year. "It didn't matter how much we explained to people that he wanted to cut all subsidies to all energy sources," he said.
The ethanol mandates were authorized by Congress roughly a decade ago in a program that requires steadily escalating volumes of biofuels to be blended into the country’s fuel supplies. The law, designed to shrink the nation’s dependence on foreign crude and curb greenhouse-gas emissions, has pitted oil companies against farmers in the corn-rich Midwest.
In recent years, ethanol has fallen out of favor with some environmentalists and scientists who say that it drives up food prices and nullifies its environmental benefits because of the energy required to make it. Branstad wants to see ethanol make a show of strength in his state's caucuses.
"If they are able to stop the Cruz momentum, that will show the real clout of the renewables," the Iowa governor said.