Democrats turn to rural issues to court Iowa, heartland voters

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the Heartland Forum held on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, March 30, 2019. PlayNati Harnik/AP
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On the 2016 presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump spoke frequently about the blue-collar workers and rural Americans he claimed that the Obama administration and Democratic Party had left behind, labeling them "forgotten men and women."

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For Democrats now running to unseat Trump in 2020, winning back the support of rural blue-collar workers, especially in early primary states like Iowa, could be the key to electability.

As the ever-growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls plot their strategies to win back heartland voters, four candidates and one potential candidate convened in Northwest Iowa to outline rural-focused policies that would support small farmers, bolster labor unions and combat climate change.

At Saturday's "Heartland Forum,” sponsored, in part ,by the Iowa Farmers Union, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, all shared their visions for rural America, as other Democrats across the country chimed in to advocate for the agriculture industry.

For Warren, whose campaign has embraced the senator's focus on policy, the event was preceded by a rollout Wednesday of her plan to support family farmers. The proposal calls for a rollback of regulations that prevent farmers from repairing their own equipment, limiting of foreign ownership of farmland and breaking up agribusiness conglomerates -- the latter reminiscent of her earlier pitch to dismantle large technology companies.

"Federal regulators have allowed multinational companies to crush competition and seize control over key markets," Warren wrote in a blog post announcing her proposal last week. "The result is that farmers are getting a record-low amount of every dollar Americans spend on food, food prices aren’t going down, and agribusiness CEOs and other corporate executives are raking it in."

One of the companies Warren singled out Wednesday was the Chinese owner of Smithfield Foods, whose CEO Wan Long earned over $270 million in total compensation in 2017.

Saturday at the Heartland Forum, Warren amplified the issue beyond one of market dominance and income inequality.

"Right now, the farmland that is already in foreign ownership, if it were all put in one place, is the size of Virginia, and that not only creates a problem for farming communities and for our food security, it creates a threat to the safety and the defense of the United States of America," she said.

But while Warren has distinguished herself among the 2020 candidates for her fully fleshed-out policy proposals, several other candidates used the opportunity this week to share their own positions on rural issues.

On Friday, John Delaney released his "Heartland Fair Deal," which his campaign claims includes over 20 new policies to grow the rural economy, strengthen infrastructure and provide health care solutions.

Though the former congressman has previously discussed the benefits capitalism has had for American society while criticizing the socialist labels being given to Democratic-proposed programs, he echoed Warren Saturday in calling for limits on any single company’s influence in the agriculture industry.

“[Anti-trust laws] haven’t been addressed in a very long time, and the world’s changed,” he told reporters, adding, “It really needs to be updated so we have competition in the ag markets.”

PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., speaks at the Heartland Forum held on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, March 30, 2019. Nati Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., speaks at the Heartland Forum held on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, March 30, 2019.

“The reason farmers are being squeezed on the input and on the output side is because there’s a thumb on the scale of opportunity — the scale of fairness and justice,” J.D. Scholten, a former Democratic candidate for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, told ABC News.

Scholten, who wore a pin Saturday supporting the “Farmers Bill of Rights,” nearly earned one of the 2018 midterms biggest upsets, falling 3 points short of winning the 4th district for Democrats for the first time in over two decades. He ran on a platform focused on strengthening the rural Western Iowa economy, preserving family farms and investing in infrastructure. He also ran against Rep. Steve King, a Republican who hold white nationalist views.

Democrats did flip two other Iowa congressional seats during the midterms, however, and held onto a third, reversing the three-to-one advantage earned by Republicans in 2016 with Trump at the top of the ticket, and showcasing the state’s ability to function as a swing state.

With that in mind, coupled with Iowa’s trendsetting role as the first caucus state, Democratic candidates expressed their commitment to advocate for the region even from afar this weekend.

In a video shown at a rally for family farmers, Sen. Cory Booker also endorsed a “Farmers Bill of Rights,” which his campaign described as “a series of commitments that will restore opportunity and competition in rural communities across the country.” And in Texas, where a series of kick-off rallies for former Rep. Beto O’Rourke drew thousands of attendees, the former Texas Senate candidate — whose home state features 130 million acres of farmland, according to the USDA, the most in the U.S. — spoke on rural issues as well.

“If we want to lift up rural America, let’s begin by listening to rural America. Let’s partner with them by investing in hospitals and schools and infrastructure like broadband internet,” O’Rourke said in El Paso. “And then let’s ensure that every farmer, every rancher, every grower, every producer can make a profit as they grow what feeds and clothes not just America, but so much of the rest of the world.”