Des Moines – Only weeks after taking this key state in the presidential race by surprise, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defended his front-runner status in Iowa by pledging to support a federal ethanol mandate, shifting his position on renewable fuels at a Republican roundup on farm issues.
The GOP governor and a lineup of other major potential presidential contenders – including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – took the stage before hundreds of spectators and media at the Iowa Ag Summit at the state fairgrounds here.
In the moderated discussion with ethanol magnate Bruce Rastetter, Walker dropped his previous flat opposition to ethanol mandates, offering a new stance that’s well-suited to a state covered in cornfields. Walker signaled that he favors keeping the mandate for now and phasing it outin the future – without saying over what period.
“It’s an access issue, and so it’s something I’m willing to go forward on continuing the Renewable Fuel Standard and pressing the EPA to make sure there’s certainty in terms of the blend levels set,” Walker said. “Now, long term – we’ve talked about this before as well – my goal would be to get to a point where we directly address those market access issues and I think that’s a part of the challenge. So that eventually you didn’t need to have a standard.”
Walker, a past critic of ethanol, acknowledged in January that he would have to spell out his position on the issue as part of his likely presidential bid. In other key issues for Iowa, Walker said that he favored drawing down federal tax credits for wind power over time and opposed mandatory labeling of foods made from genetically modified crops.
“This is one of those where I believe it’s served its purpose,” Walker said of the credits. “I would support phasing that out over a period of time.”
When Walker arrived in this state for his breakout speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, he was a candidate with more potential than organization or momentum. Now he has staff and an office in the state, a national campaign apparatus and a leading position in many polls.
Increasingly, he is adopting positions, such as supporting ethanol incentives, that fit the needs of his likely presidential campaign even if they are inconsistent with his past stances.
On Saturday night, Walker flew to Dubuque to attend a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), regaling the audience with a story of how a wheel once fell off the family car as he was passing through town.
“So that’s the only time I spent the night in Dubuque,” Walker said. Later Saturday night he was returning to Des Moines to attend church there on Sunday and meet with grass-roots activists.
The Freedom Summit in January was an unabashedly red-meat Republican event, but the industry-focused crowd at the Ag Summit was almost studious by comparison. The Midwestern audience listened intently to the top 2016 contenders, with clapping kept to a minimum and boos almost unheard over the day, but Walker got his share of applause.
Much of the attention focused on Walker and Bush, who are making their first speeches at the same event in Iowa. The event is also Bush’s first big appearance of this campaign cycle. But the lineup of Republicans also included Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey; former Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas; former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Bush delivered a speech that resembled a university lecture as much as a political broadside, throwing out more careful policy points than punches at Democratic President Barack Obama. He adopted a similar position to Walker, supporting subsidies and mandates to support wind and ethanol as sources of power for now but saying that they should be phased out.
“At some point, we’ll see a reduction of the (federal Renewable Fuels Standard) need because ethanol will be such a valuable (product) for our country,” Bush said.
On immigration, Bush argued before a mostly silent audience that the country needs to reduce the immigration of extended family members of American citizens and then let in more immigrants who can help meet the needs of a modern economy.
“We should dramatically expand – based on need – economic immigrants. … We want to be young and dramatic and growing again,” Bush said.
None of the candidates necessarily satisfied ethanol supporters with their comments. Before Walker’s talk, Bill Couser, co-chairman for America’s Renewable Future, a sponsor of the event, said he wanted more specific details from Bush, Walker and other candidates on how they would handle the federal ethanol mandate.
For his part, Craig Robinson, founder and editor of TheIowaRepublican.com, called Walker a “clear winner” after the event.
“The room perked up when he was here,” Robinson said.
But Democrats said that Walker was merely playing politics.
R.T. Rybak Jr., a former Minneapolis mayor and Democratic National Committee vice chairman, said that Walker has opposed ethanol measures and made it more difficult to site wind farms in Wisconsin.
“Scott Walker has a very mixed record on the things that create jobs in wind and energy sectors in Iowa, especially ethanol,” Rybak said.
Focus on key candidates
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad set the tone Saturday for the summit – sponsored in part by the ethanol industry – by raising a rallying cry in favor of the federal Renewable Fuels Standard that boosts the ethanol industry. The standard requires that biofuels be blended into the fuels sold at gas pumps around the country.
“Don’t mess with RFS!” Branstad told the crowd to cheers Saturday morning.
In case any of the out-of-town politicians didn’t get the message, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) underlined it. “There’s nothing negative about ethanol,” Grassley said. “It’s good, good, good.”
Walker lined up rhetorically with the home team in Iowa, mentioning Branstad in almost every one of his answers.
On Monday morning, Walker will sign controversial right-to-work legislation in Milwaukee.
He started Saturday in Georgia, where he was receiving foreign-policy lectures at a meeting of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“He’s getting policy briefings and we’re bringing on staff and advisers because that’s what we’re doing with Our American Revival and it’s important to do,” said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for Our American Revival, Walker’s political group. “He’s a governor, an executive and a leader, and he’s going to manage this process the same way he’s managed his time and staff as county executive and governor.”
Ethanol a key issue
In Iowa, ethanol is an integral part of politics.
The Republicans who performed best in the 2012 Republican caucus, Santorum and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, supported the Renewable Fuel Standard. Two who performed near the bottom, then-U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Perry, did not.
Supporters of the biofuel additive have pushed for increasing the percentage of it used in gasoline, but the petroleum industry and engine makers have argued against it.
Supporters say ethanol promotes both rural American and the nation’s energy independence. Critics say an increase in oil supply has made the biofuel additive less important as an alternative to foreign crude. Also, as vehicles become more fuel efficient, Americans are using less gasoline than they did eight years ago when the government expanded the standard.
Cruz flatly opposes ethanol mandates, telling the Ag Summit crowd that he thinks Iowa voters will respect him for standing on principle.
“I support biofuels and ethanol. … I also don’t think Washington should be picking winners and losers,” Cruz said.
Ethanol came up when Walker first ran for Wisconsin governor in 2006, but he dropped out before the GOP primary. Before exiting the race, he ran a radio ad saying he opposed then-pending legislation that would have required all mid-grade gasoline in Wisconsin to include 10% ethanol. The measure did not pass.
In a statement at the time, Walker said, “It is clear to me that a big government mandate is not the way to support the farmers of this state. … The free enterprise system must drive innovation to relieve our dependence on foreign oil, not mandates from the state or federal government.”
Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report from Milwaukee.