When Democratic leaders in Congress pushed through a sweeping new farm bill with generous payouts to agriculture two years ago, it was partly with politics in mind.
They reasoned that a farmer-friendly bill would boost the party's standing and help restore the urban-rural coalition that enabled Democrats to rule the House for much of the last two-thirds of the 20th Century.
At a key moment in the House debate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat from San Francisco, sided with the farm bloc against reform-minded lawmakers pushing to slash traditional subsidies on crops. When President Bush vetoed the legislation, Democrats in both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to override him.
But with little more than two weeks to go before the midterm elections, rural Democrats appear to be getting little credit for their efforts – or for an agricultural economy that largely dodged the recession. Agricultural exports are booming, farm profits are at near record levels, and corn prices neared $6 a bushel this week, a two-year high. Farmland values, bucking national real estate trends, are up nearly 5 percent in the northern Great Plains, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
A GOP takeover of the House could mean renewed pressure to pare back farm subsidies from a new freshman class of "small government" Republicans. House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, the likely new speaker, is a longtime critic of farm programs and didn't vote for the 2008 farm bill. Former House GOP Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, who chairs the national Tea Party organizing group FreedomWorks, has also been a relentless critic of government subsidies for agriculture.
Dozens of rural Democrats now face uphill re-election battles. "It's the overall mood," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's difficult for incumbents to take credit for anything.
In many rural areas, despite a heavy reliance on farm subsidies and other federal support, conservative voters are philosophically opposed to a powerful central government. In such communities, GOP attacks on health care legislation, the $814 billion economic stimulus package and a carbon "cap and trade" bill resonate.
Tough Battles for the "Agricrats"
In the House, some freshmen Democrats on the Agriculture Committee, including Betsy Markey of Colorado and Kathy Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, are in tough battles to save their seats. More senior Democrats with a long record of support for agricultural interests are also struggling.
The most prominent example may be North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a veteran member of the Agriculture Committee, who used his seat on the Ways and Means Committee to help engineer crucial funding for the 2008 farm bill. A Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters in late September found Pomeroy trailing his Republican opponent, businessman Rick Berg, though the margin had narrowed.
Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell, who chairs the subcommittee on farm commodities, is also in a tight race, despite an endorsement from the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Boswell, analysts say, is paying a price for supporting health care, climate and stimulus legislation. Also in tight races are Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, a seven-term moderate "Blue Dog" who chairs the rural development subcommittee, and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, who is from a political dynasty in her state and who played an important role in drafting the 2008 farm bill.
In Senate races, Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., is running far behind her opponent, despite close ties to the state's farming, timber and poultry interests and her sponsorship of a controversial "disaster aid" package that will channel tens of millions of dollars to farming interests over the next few months. Lincoln's support for President Obama's health care reform legislation has hurt her badly in her heavily rural state.
Rural voters have never been shy about booting out powerful congressional figures when they seemed to have lost touch with folks back home. In 2004, South Dakotans ousted then Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, and in 1994, eastern Washington voters ejected House Speaker Thomas Foley, a former Agriculture Committee chairman.
But some are puzzled by the backlash this year against many "agricrats" – Democrats with a record of putting farming interests at the top of their agendas. "We're the one committee where the Democrats have a story to tell," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said last month.
The 2008 farm bill, pushed through by Democratic congressional leaders over the objection of President Bush and a bloc of conservative Republicans in the House, was widely hailed in farm country. It created two new safety net programs, while continuing or increasing traditional subsidies and boosting spending on conservation and rural development.
It also added $10 billion to improve nutrition programs and pay for new initiatives for small farmers and fruit and vegetable growers. Pelosi's support drew the ire of a broad coalition of reformers who wanted tougher limits on subsidies, as well as other changes.
In 2009, Peterson used his power as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and close personal ties to Pelosi to rewrite key provisions in climate and energy legislation to assuage farming interests. The House-passed version exempted agriculture from having to cut greenhouse gas emissions, limited the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to dictate requirements for corn-based ethanol plants, and put the Department of Agriculture, rather than EPA, in charge of credits for farmers who initiated carbon-saving agricultural practices.
The Obama administration has been a strong supporter of a growing biofuels industry, a top priority of corn and soybean interests. This week, over the objection of the oil and automobile industries, the administration announced steps to increase the amount of ethanol used in car engines.
But in recent months Republicans have worked to portray the Obama administration — and implicitly, Democrats in Congress — as enemies of large-scale agriculture. That effort may have been made easier by early administration missteps, such as proposing sharp cuts in a key subsidy in its first budget. First Lady Michelle Obama's interest in farmers' markets and the local food movement has not endeared the administration to large-scale farmers and agribusinesses.
Leading the Attack
In the House, the attack on administration policies has been led by Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee. A man who runs his own farm and ranch in western Oklahoma, Lucas represents the conservative values of his rural district. But he also strongly embraces traditional government farm programs and has stated that the Obama administration is "no friend to agriculture" and "the most unfriendly to farmers and ranchers in recent history." Lucas made no mention of Bush's veto of the 2008 farm bill.
"Speaker Pelosi and her lieutenants in Congress, working with the Obama administration, want to dictate to farmers and ranchers how to feed the American public," said Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma.
During a heated exchange with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this year, he suggested that the administration seemed to be "talking about turning rural America into a bedroom community where people drive from and to work every day." Lucas cited USDA's plans to shift funds from traditional farm subsidy programs to investments in broadband, renewable energy and regional food systems.
In May, a Lucas statement distributed at the annual Washington meeting of farm broadcasters declared that "the most significant threat [faced by American agriculture] is the tremendous disconnect between the people running Washington … and the needs and wants of the men and women who work in production agriculture and throughout rural America."
A leading target of the GOP attacks has been EPA, which is also unpopular with many farm state Democrats. In his May statement, Lucas criticized EPA's expanded role in regulating pesticides and herbicides. He was also critical of Democratic support for a "backdoor national energy tax" in the form of legislation to cap carbon emissions.
The administration, he also contended, was bent on banning the use of animal antibiotics despite a lack of convincing scientific evidence that they were harmful to humans as presently employed. And he worried that animal rights activists were dictating rules for humane treatment of farm animals that could adversely affect the livestock industry.
"It is clear that Speaker Pelosi and her lieutenants in Congress, working with the Obama administration, want to dictate to farmers and ranchers how to feed the American public," Lucas said.
Such statements carry weight in the farm belt. But they sharpen partisanship in agriculture policy, an area that historically has been a haven of bipartisan harmony.
The tough rhetoric, and the bitterness of the current election, could spill over into the debate over the next farm bill. Republican supporters of traditional farm programs then may need the help of rural Democrats in fending off deep cuts pushed by austerity-minded GOP leaders.