Why 9 Potential Presidents Care About Corn, Pork and 1 Millionaire in Iowa

Politicians woo the Hawkeye State.

March 06, 2015, 11:38 AM
PHOTO: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker
Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker
Getty Images

— -- On Saturday, nine potential presidential candidates -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Scott Walker -- will descend on Des Moines for the first-ever Iowa Agriculture Summit.

Hosted by Iowa “kingmaker” Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness mogul, the seven-hour summit will give these possible candidates a chance to clarify their views on agriculture policy. But what they really care about is wooing Iowa voters.

Seriously, what’s the deal with Iowa?

If you’ve been following the 2016 chatter at all, you’ve probably noticed politicians sucking up to Iowa. That’s because the state, home to the now-famous 600-pound butter cow, is the first to vote -- or, more accurately, caucus -- in the presidential primaries.

Though Iowa’s majority white population isn’t representative of the rest of the country, winning in the Hawkeye State signals major momentum, attracting the kind of big donors that can catapult a candidate to the White House -- donors like Rastetter.

Tell me more about this millionaire kingmaker.

Rastetter made his millions in pork and ethanol. He has reportedly donated more than $1.5 million to political candidates since 2003.

Pundits call him a “kingmaker.” Though he shies away from the label, he has bankrolled GOP candidates from Florida to California, and continues to be most influential Republican donor in the state.

Rastetter, who encouraged Christie to run in 2012, hasn't yet endorsed a candidate for 2016. Saturday’s event will thrust him squarely into the spotlight. For 20 minutes each, he’ll quiz some of the nation’s top political talent on everything from immigration to ethanol.

Speaking of ethanol, why are Iowans so obsessed with it?

The corn-based fuel alternative is a major boon for Iowa corn farmers. According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, nearly half of the 2 billion bushels of corn grown in the state each year goes into ethanol production, and many growers there won’t support a president who doesn’t champion ethanol.

That makes Saturday’s summit slightly awkward for politicians like Sen. Cruz, R-Texas, who has become increasingly hostile toward government-subsidized biofuels.

"I believe we should pursue an all-of-the-above energy policy and that Washington shouldn't be picking winners and losers," Cruz said in August. The Texas senator wants to repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates refiners blend ethanol into the fuel supply.

That puts him at odds with some of the other politicians hoping to make political hay in the Hawkeye State. Huckabee and Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and 2012, respectively, have both expressed support for the standard.

(Other politicians who oppose the standard, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or want to phase it out like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have opted to skip the summit. Rubio is attending a family wedding on Saturday.)

Which candidate faces the highest stakes?

The biggest story line of this weekend is Bush’s return to Iowa.

The ag summit will be an opening salvo of sorts for the former Florida governor, who hasn’t stepped foot in the Hawkeye State since October 2012. Bush, who sat out the high-profile Iowa Freedom Summit in January, has planned a two-day swing through the state, with appearances in Cedar Rapids, Urbandale and Waukee.

Nationally, Bush is polling relatively well compared to his potential rivals. But according to the Quinnipiac poll, Iowa -- a state that has historically embraced more right-wing conservatives like Huckabee and Santorum -- hasn’t yet fallen in love with Bush.

His controversial views on immigration and common core education standards don’t sit well with the state’s conservative base.

The good news for Bush? According to a poll released in January, 63 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers say his last name isn’t a deal breaker.

Who else should I be watching?

Pundits are wondering whether Wisconsin Gov. Walker, who has surged in the polls of late, will make an even bigger splash on Saturday.

In a Quinnipiac poll released just last week, Walker led the GOP pack in Iowa, scoring 25 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, followed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (13 percent), former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee (11 percent), neurosurgeon Ben Carson (11 percent) and Bush (10 percent).

And what’s this I hear about "The Bachelor"?

The biggest heartthrob in the Hawkeye State, "Bachelor" star Chris Soules, works for Rastetter, and his fawning fans in Iowa hoped he'd make an appearance at the summit.

Bad news, people -- Soules tells ABC he "can't make it."

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