Sen. Barack Obama pledged his allegiance to corn and ethanol last year in Adel, Iowa. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, opposes ethanol fuel mandates.
Photo: Obama Campaign

Forget Republican or Democratic. The political divide growing in many states is based on corn — and that division is cutting through the middle of rural America.

Candidates are falling on either side of the ethanol divide. Should the country require greater use of corn-based ethanol or should those mandates be dissolved? Those who support the mandates contend ethanol is a way to lessen dependence on imported oil. Those who say the mandates ought to be removed contend using food for fuel is one of the reasons grocery prices are rising.

The first group is composed of corn growers and rural regions where ethanol plants have been built. The second group is filled with those who buy corn: cattle raisers, chicken feeders and food producers.

Republican or Democrat matters less than whether you represent a corn state or a livestock region. It’s an issue that has more to do with geography and rural economies than with ideology.

Gov. Matt Blunt of Missouri, largely a corn state, denied a request in mid-June by Kansas City (stockyard central) that it should be exempt from the state’s ethanol mandate. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, operates in a state filled with cattle raisers and poultry producers. So he has petitioned the federal government to ease ethanol mandates.

The Republican Party in Texas has largely lined up against federal requirements that the country use more ethanol. The state’s two senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, have joined Perry. Sen. Hutchison has introduced legislation calling for a freeze of the federal mandate at the current level. The legislation was co-signed by 11 other Republicans, including the party’s presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Republicans were promptly rewarded for their stand. The chairman of Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing operation in northeast Texas donated $100,000 to the Republican Governors Association (which Perry currently chairs). Bo Pilgrim also paid more than $9,000 in airfare for Gov. Rick Perry and three aides to attend a news conference called to promote a waiver of the federal ethanol mandate. Pilgrim also gave $25,000 to Perry’s political action committee.

Republican governors were hardly unified on ethanol, however. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (yes, a corn state) said “corn-based and commodities-based ethanol for states like Minnesota has been a success story.” South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (chicken state), meanwhile, said the federal mandate was a “totally bogus government mandate.”

Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman, a Republican, opposes ethanol mandates. Her opponent in the Republican gubernatorial primary, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, favors them.

The corn divide is most evident in the Missouri governor’s race. In the Republican primary (the election is August 5th), the leading candidates have split on either side of the corn divide. Missouri state treasurer Sarah Steelman has been campaigning against the ethanol mandates. Her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Columbia, has backed the mandates.

The ethanol issue cuts rural Missouri in half. “A rift has started to develop in Missouri’s agricultural community between the row-crop farmers who dominate northern Missouri and the Bootheel and the livestock ranchers who are most common in the southern part of the state,” according to an Associated Press report. So, Steelman has been on a bus tour of southern Missouri (a heavily Republican area).

The controversy has benefited Democrat Jay Nixon, the Missouri attorney general. Nixon is a corn backer and ethanol supporter. The Missouri Corn Growers Association is holding a fundraiser for Nixon at the end of the month.

And then, in the presidential race, corn starkly divides the two candidates. McCain opposes the ethanol mandate (which makes Minnesota’s pro-ethanol Tim Pawlenty an interesting vice presidential choice). Sen. Barack Obama, however, supports ethanol. (The headline in the New York Times in late June was “Obama Camp Closely Linked With Ethanol.”) Obama, the Democrat, supports the federal ethanol mandate and he opposes removal of a tariff on imported biofuels from Brazil. (Early in his senate career Obama rode for low rates on a jet owned by Archer Daniels Midland, an ethanol producer.) McCain thinks the tariff on Brazilian biofuels should be removed.

Obama’s stand will certainly put him in opposition with environmental groups that oppose large-scale ethanol production. For rural America, however, the split has less to do with free trade and more to do with whether you see row crops or pasture when you look out the kitchen window.

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