POLITICS

The Issue That Could Sink Ted Cruz In Iowa

The state's corn lobby and voters have pushed the candidate to clarify his stance on ethanol.

SPENCER, Iowa -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been forced to clarify his stance on ethanol, an important industry in Iowa, as he crisscrosses the state less than one month before its first-in-nation presidential caucuses.

Cruz, who has been asked about the issue at every single stop on his six-day barnstorming tour across the state, has insisted he is not against ethanol and denied switching his position on the Renewable Fuel Standard. The state's influential and bipartisan corn lobby, America's Renewable Future, commended the Republican presidential hopeful Wednesday for a “big change” in his position on the RFS, while Cruz claimed he has been consistent on the topic.

The Renewable Fuel Standard is a government program passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007 that requires transportation fuel sold in the U.S. to contain a certain amount of biofuels, including ethanol. Ethanol is a major market for Iowa corn, and the biofuel requirement has largely boosted the state’s economy.

"I do believe there should be a gradual phaseout because there have been investment-backed expectations," Cruz told a voter Wednesday at a campaign stop in Sioux Center. 

"When I said we should phase it out, I said it should be a five-year phaseout,” he said. “The phaseout from 2017 to 2022 is five years. I do believe there should be a gradual phaseout because there have been investment-backed expectations."

I do believe there should be a gradual phaseout because there have been investment-backed expectations. Ted Cruz

The level of interest in the topic at Cruz events may be tied to America's Renewable Future, which has been trailing the senator in an RV, handing out mailers and talking to voters at every campaign stop.

Previously, the bipartisan group rated Cruz as one of the worst presidential candidates on the Renewable Fuel Standard. The only other candidate to receive a negative rating is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

“His position has changed considerably,” Eric Branstad, the state director of America’s Renewable Future and son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), said of Cruz in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Now that we are three and a half weeks before the caucus, it’s abundantly clear that he’s listening to Iowa farmers.”

However, Cruz claims his comments are no different from what he has said in the past.

“I have consistently said that we should phase out the RFS,” Cruz said in response to a question from The Huffington Post. “I filed legislation in 2014 that is a five-year phaseout of the RFS, and that has been my position.”

Cruz's 2014 legislation would have phased out the program over a five-year period ending in 2020. The legislation is unlikely to become law under the Obama administration, so Cruz says he would try to push through the same plan as president with an effective date of 2022 -- five years after he would take office.

Cruz previously supported a total repeal of the program, including a 2013 measure that would have ended the RFS immediately.

The senator has been unapologetic in his stance against the RFS, claiming that he supports eliminating all energy-specific subsidies because the program picks “energy winners and losers” in the market.

Cruz expanded on his position in an op-ed published in The Des Moines Register on Wednesday, in which he criticized the government for restricting the sale of higher blends of ethanol at gas stations.

Despite Cruz’s 2014 legislative proposal that would have phased out the ethanol mandate, some individuals remain skeptical of his motivation, noting that he has not made his support of the five-year phaseout clear during his visits to the Hawkeye State and in talking with voters.

“Now that he’s hearing from Iowans, he’s kind of feeling the pressure,” said Derek Eadon, senior adviser for America’s Renewable Future. “We had invited him to fill out a questionnaire, to visit an ethanol plant, to explain his position to farmers and it wasn’t until ARF started pressuring him and all of the sudden he starts talking about that he is a friend to ethanol, he’s putting op-eds in the Register and his support through 2022.”

Now that he’s hearing from Iowans, he’s kind of feeling the pressure. Derek Eadon of America's Renewable Future

Branstad points to the GOP hopeful’s 2013 bill for immediate repeal of the RFS as an indication that his position has not been consistent.

“That bill is pretty plain and simple and crystal clear of that said. That was his sponsored bill,” Branstad said. “Now I realize in 2014 to 2015 he calls for a five-year phaseout ... He has come considerably in a different direction than what he ever discussed before.”

Julie French, 64, a Meriden farmer who challenged Cruz this week to clarify his position on phasing out the RFS, says she was under the impression that he wanted to repeal the program immediately instead of waiting five years.

“We came here to hear Ted’s own words on how he stood on this,” she explained. “We heard so much how Ted Cruz is against ethanol. I don’t believe he is. I still don’t like it that he calls it a mandate, because it’s not a mandate. It is just getting our product out there and we have to rely on the oil companies to do it.”

This issue hits close to home for French and her husband, who have invested $160,000 in three ethanol plants and two biodiesel plants. 

“Getting rid of the RFS would tell the oil companies, 'Well if you don’t want to use the ethanol, you don’t have to,'” French explained. “That would hurt us because we are invested in a plant that is producing ethanol out of our corn.”

French said at this point she’s unsure who she’s supporting on Feb. 1, but she’s leaning toward retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. She says Cruz is her second choice. 

Not every voter who questioned Cruz about the Renewable Fuel Standard was unhappy with his answer, though.

At a stop Monday morning in Boone, Robert Anderlik, who has a farm in Northeast Iowa, approached Cruz and walked away satisfied after a conversation about eliminating all energy subsidies.

“I agree with his response that the government should not put mandates on any industry. The government should not control that,” Anderlik explained. “I like the idea of competition in industry, but there should not be any favoritism. Right now, there is favoritism.”

Cruz, who is leading in the polls in Iowa, has argued that lobbyists in Washington are trying to “snooker” Iowans into believing “a government mandate is the only way for ethanol to survive.”

“I don’t want Iowa dependent on Washington,” he continued. “I don’t think Iowa farmers wanna be dependent on Washington because you know what that boils down to. That boils down to a bunch of politicians shaking the voters down over and over again. It’s the Washington cartel.”

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