COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA — The ethanol lobby is a paper tiger, and Ted Cruz just tore it to shreds.
Cruz, the country's most famous enemy of the federal ethanol mandate, just won Iowa, winning more votes than any person in the history of the caucuses.
Cruz thus busted the myth that you can't mess with the ethanol lobby and still win Iowa. The lesson goes beyond ethanol: The only constituency for corporate welfare is on K Street.
Politicians are fooled into thinking corporate welfare is important to voters because politicians spend an inordinate amount of time with the powerful people to whom corporate welfare is vitally important. That's why every candidate who has tried to win Iowa has prostrated him or herself before ethanol.
They thought they had to. Cruz proved they didn't.
Cruz campaigned on a five-year wind-down of ethanol. Other candidates, like Jeb Bush, said they would consider winding down the mandate in 2022 — during a presumptive second term. Cruz's plan involves a 20 percent reduction of the mandate in his first year in office, and the same cut each year until it zeroes out.
In exchange, Cruz pledged to remove subsidies for other fuels and the regulations that artificially constrain ethanol's growth. He would replace subsidies and regulations with free enterprise all around.
This infuriated the ethanol posse.
Governor Terry Branstad went on a jihad against Cruz, attacking him as "the biggest opponent of renewable fuels." Branstad took to Fox News the morning before the caucuses to pound Cruz.
America's Renewable Future, the ethanol lobby headed by Gov. Branstad's son Eric, spent $300,000 this election, according to campaign finance filings, basically all of it against Ted Cruz. They spent on mailers, on robo calls, on radio ads and on print ads.
ARF also followed Cruz around the state in a "You Cruz You Lose" truck that declared "Caucusing for Cruz is Caucusing Against Iowa Farmers."
That truck was parked outside a Cruz event in Emmetsburg on Friday, while ARF staffers passed out their report cards of candidates. (Only Cruz and Rand Paul failed.)
Emmetsburg, in Northwest Iowa, is ethanol country. It's the county seat of Palo Alto County, where 179,000 acres are planted with corn. That is like planting all of Chicago in corn.
Poet Inc. is the world's largest ethanol producer. Their flagship plant for advanced biofuels is in Emmetsburg. Poet is perhaps the second most prominent business in town (after the Wild Rose casino). The King of Netherlands attended the ribbon-cutting at the Poet plant in 2014. "The whole town was there," resident Luke Daum told me.
Still, most farm counties voted for Cruz. "The ethanol industry has been subsidized for long enough," a corn farmer named Tim told me before the Cruz town hall. "I think they need to learn to swim on their own."
How would Farmer Tim fare if President Cruz scrapped the mandate? "I'm not sure. I'm more worried about the good of the country as a whole."
"I don't like it," tells me Gordon, a retired auto worker in Council Bluffs. The ethanol mandate benefits "a lot of rich farmers."
"Corn can stand on its own," Ted Herbold told me at Cruz's Sioux Falls rally Saturday Night.
Most Iowa Republicans, it turns out, don't care about the ethanol mandate. A majority of likely Republican voters in the final Des Moines Register poll said they were unbothered by Cruz's mandate opposition.
Branstad's ethanol-fueled jihad? It had no net impact. Only 11 percent of Iowans said Branstad's opposition made them less likely to support Cruz in the final Des Moines Register poll. The overwhelming majority were unmoved. Another 11 percent said Branstad's opposition made them support Cruz more.
Zero percent of Iowans said energy or agriculture were the most important issues to them in a 2015 poll by CNN.
The myth of ethanol as a third rail persisted because no politician challenged it. Cruz did, and he won — again, his 51,666 is the highest number of votes in the history of the Iowa caucus.
Cruz certainly lost some portion of the electorate, and he earned himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads. But by being consistent in his defense of free enterprise, he won over even those who disagreed with him on the issue.
Corporate welfare lobbies don't win over lawmakers simply by handing them big checks and promising them lobby jobs (well, for some that's how). The lobbies run ads back home, and contact subsidy recipients and local politicians back home. The lawmaker returns to his district and gets the impression of a groundswell for subsidies.
But the "groundswell" typically consists of the couple of dozen subsidy recipients. The lobbyists sometimes value the subsidy even more than the final recipients do — businessmen can adapt to a market more or less directed by government; lobbyists need big government in order to stay relevant.
The ethanol lobby was desperate to defeat Cruz because they knew he could pierce their illusion of power. With the myth popped, there's no reason Republicans, in control of Congress, shouldn't proceed immediately to kill the ethanol mandate.
Cruz's win sends a message to other conservatives — you can oppose corporate welfare and pay no political price.
Cruz's win also sends a message to other corporate welfare lobbies: You're next.
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.