EMMETSBURG, IOWA — Poet, the largest ethanol company in the U.S., has a world-famous biofuel plant in Emmetsburg. The king of the Netherlands once visited it. "The whole town was there, Luke Daum of Emmetsburg told me before a Ted Cruz event here today.
Everyone attending the Cruz town hall was greeted by an employee of America's Renewable Future, an ethanol lobby headed by Eric Branstad, the son of Republican governor Terry Branstad. The ARF aide handed out glossy fliers giving all Democrats and most Republicans a green light on their support for ethanol. Only Rand Paul and Ted Cruz got failing grades.
Tim, a middle-aged corn and soybean farmer from the area was there, and he told me he'll caucus for Cruz on Monday. Tim even worked at the Poet refinery a few years back. I asked him what he thinks of Cruz's plan to wind down the ethanol mandate — officially the Renewable Fuel Standard — over five years.
"As long as he's consistent" that is, also opposing subsidies and mandates for other fuels, I'm fine with that," Tim told me.
"The ethanol industry has been subsidized for long enough," this corn farmer told me. "I think they need to learn to swim on their own."
But wouldn't killing the RFS hurt him as a corn farmer?
"I'm not sure. I'm more worried about the good of the country as a whole."
Cruz's argument to ethanol backers is this: I don't oppose ethanol, I just oppose federal mandates; and I'll help ethanol by eliminating federal caps on the blending ratios.
Rep. Steve King, whose district includes Emmetsburg, is an ethanol booster and a fan of the RFS, despite being otherwise conservative. I asked King whether he believed Cruz's argument. "I'm confident that in the long term, his policies are a plus-up," King said, explaining that the RFS would not be immortal anyway.
Cruz has refined his ethanol argument in recent weeks, and he has now fit it fully within his familiar People-vs-Washington framework.
He pointed out towards the ethanol-lobby's "You Cruz You Lose" truck in the parking lot and said, "As you all are aware, there are a bunch of lobbyists and a bunch of Democrats spending millions of dollars trying to convince the people that I am somehow opposed to ethanol. It is complete and utter nonsense. I very much support ethanol, I just oppose Washington."
Cruz then explained his policy proposal — phase out the mandate, eliminate blending caps, and kill favors for oil and gas. Then he made his real argument:
"There is a reason that the lobbyists want the men and women of Iowa to focus on the RFS. Because it keeps Iowa dependent on Washington. It means that every year Iowa has to go back to Washington to maintain the mandate, and what that means is the lobbyists get paid every year. Every year they get paid. Every year the politicians get paid. As long as Iowa is dependent on Washington, that keeps the power in Washington."
The crowd — nearly in the shadow of the Poet plant — nodded throughout his explanation and even gave hearty applause at points.
One attendee named David had come to the town hall with a list of eight questions he wanted asked. Ethanol was No. 3. He said Cruz's explanation had convinced him.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.