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Is Trump’s fealty to Big Oil endangering Republicans’ grip on the Senate?

When Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) cruised to a nearly 10 point win in her first election in 2014, it was no surprise to the Des Moines Register, the gold standard for Iowa polling, which had her leading strongly going into that election. 

So she has to take it quite seriously that the same poll now shows her trailing a newcomer Democratic opponent by 3 points. Perhaps more importantly, her approval rating has been on a steady decline for a year now, with some polling showing her underwater with as much as a -7 net approval rating. So, what’s going on? 

Certainly part of the issue is drag from the top of the ticket, as Iowans have soured on President Trump and with a majority saying the country is on the wrong track, a trend that tracks with Ernst’s declining approval ratings — an effect the senator has exacerbated with her extraordinary efforts to defend the president. 

Meanwhile, on the policy front, despite Trump’s very specific promises to Midwestern farmers during the campaign that helped turn traditionally purple Iowa blood red, the economic pain in farm country has only increased due to his ill-conceived trade wars and weakened biofuels policy. To take one example, ethanol producers — and the corn farmers who rely on them for a substantial portion of their market — had to deal with historic floods last year and the collapse of fuel demand due to COVID-19 shutdowns this year and, rather than getting the relief they expected, they have gotten more deals benefitting the oil industry. So, with Trump’s promises to take care of farmers increasingly looking like an illusion, Sen. Ernst’s efforts to have it both ways by touting the president’s support for farmers while lamenting his EPA’s coziness with the oil industry will continue to ring hollow. 

Now, it looks like the president isn’t going to make Ernst’s life any easier as he entertains oil refiners’ request for retroactive waivers of renewable fuels requirements in order to undo the recent court decision unanimously finding the president wasn’t following the law in giving continued support of small oil refineries at farmers’ expense.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s actions have given Democrats the initiative to help biofuels producers, by including in the Democrats’ Heroes Act COVID-19 relief provision giving temporary support for biofuels producers during this crisis. Having this longed-for relief sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) desk with little prospect for Senate action only highlights further Sen. Ernst’s inability to focus her party on the real pain being experienced in her state. Ernst publicly touts her efforts to “push” the administration and her own Senate caucus to fix the problem. But if Trump’s oil-friendly EPA doesn’t fix the issue, and if McConnell doesn’t take up the biofuels package passed by the House, she will be left running on more empty words when her constituents need action. Her reelection, and perhaps Republican control of the Senate, may very well hang on whether or not EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sides with Ernst or the oil industry. 

Of course, Iowa is about more than corn and biofuels. It’s also increasingly a power in wind energy — but Trump has been no friend to this industry either. Between his repudiation of the irrefutable science compelling us to action on climate and his fantasies about “wind noise,” he’s not making any friends in this Iowa job-creating industry either. Again, the Democrats are threatening to take the initiative on another key Iowa climate-friendly industry as they continue to push support for it, only to run aground in the Senate. With clean energy industries, due to their need for substantial planning and permitting times, suffering disproportionately in the current downturn, voters throughout the country will be looking closely to see if Congress will protect these vital jobs or continue to provide giveaways to the oil industry.

After the 2016 election, the national media famously rushed into “flyover country” to try to understand why voters were attracted to Donald Trump. Lots of analysis focused on struggling Midwestern local economies and promises that Trump and his party made to fix those issues. But the latest Fox News poll shows that Trump’s lead over Biden is currently at 9 percent among rural voters, a group he won by 27 percent in 2016 — and this could be a problem for GOP candidates running with Trump at the top of their ticket. 

House Democrats have made their move, and farmers are watching McConnell and the EPA’s Wheeler. Biofuels may not be the sexiest issue for political reporters, but it could very well make the difference in the all-important race for control of the Senate.

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Big Oil Biofuels campaign 2020 Donald Trump election 2020 Ethanol farmers Joni Ernst midwestern states Midwestern voters Mitch McConnell presidential election Senate race voters

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