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Up for grabs.
That’s the way they describe Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill’s seat in the U.S. Senate. They may be right. After all, Missouri has become a red state from top to bottom with only tiny slices of blue sandwiched in between at places like St Louis, Columbia, and Kansas City.
But that’s what they said last time Claire faced re-election, and the time before that. It reminds me of another famous Missourian, Mark Twain, who said when a newspaper inadvertently published his obituary in advance—“rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Well-funded male Republican opponents Claire faced in previous elections (it goes without saying both were conservatives) opposed a lot of things Claire supports, like a higher minimum wage. Being conservative they, but not Claire, supported tax expenditures, those off the book credits handed out to corporations and wealthy individuals (sometimes called corporate welfare) that go unaccounted for in the budget.
They play that game in the Missouri General Assembly, too.
In her last election, Claire faced Todd Akin, a Tea Party congressman from St. Louis. As a Republican candidate in a red state, Akin was favored over Claire, but only briefly. Akin proved to be his own worst enemy with off-the-cuff adlib remarks that raised the ire of women voters especially.
Some friends and I spoke to Akin in his office in Washington D.C. before the election when he said, “I don’t mind telling you I have never voted for a farm bill and I never will.” Akin eventually walked that back when mainstream Republicans explained it to him, but his Tea Party attitude toward many of Missouri agriculture’s most important priorities, like the farm bill and biofuels, gave both red and blue farm groups a bad case of the willies.
Rural Missouri is red Missouri, and that’s where agriculture happens.
Here we are again for the umpteenth time. Farmers are facing trade issues with surpluses on hand that need to find a new home. We need policies in place, programs, and a profitable bottom line—or at least a break-even one – we can take to bankers for operating loans.
No loan, no farm.
All that means is that budgetary support is critical for the farm bill. That includes support for food stamps, crop insurance, biofuels, rural development, conservation, and open markets across borders where we can sell surplus production to generate cash. On some farms, guest workers from other countries are important. On virtually all farms the high cost of healthcare is important, also, because farmers are self-employed entrepreneurs who pay for their own and their families’ health insurance.
Otherwise they do without.
It is obvious that Claire’s most serious challenge will come from a conservative Republican. Right now, after Todd Akins’ successor in Congress, Anne Wagner, demurred from running, that seems to be Kansas City native and recently elected Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley. Hawley has stated his support of President Trump, and has also reportedly sought the support of former Trump White House advisor Steve Bannon.
By doubling down, Hawley must have taken to heart what happened in Alabama when Trump and Bannon endorsed separate Senate candidates.
Better safe than sorry.
In the meantime, all of Missouri agriculture will be watching not only how farm bill talks go in Washington this year, but also how Josh Hawley handles questions about his support for guest laborers, renewable fuels, big corporate mergers of seed and pesticide companies, food assistance, tax cuts…and tax expenditures, and trade agreements like NAFTA. At the same time, most self-employed Missouri voters will be dealing with the actions of President Trump regarding the Affordable Care Act. If premiums shoot through the roof over the next couple of years and rural hospitals struggle or close, it will be interesting to see the impact of health care issues on this race.
Some of my Democratic friends get a little put out with Claire when she votes from the middle of the road. Neither she nor former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, who grew up together in the Missouri General Assembly, ever voted like coastal liberals despite claims by their opposition. Let’s be honest. This is the Show Me State. She might disagree or not, but during more moderate times, Claire could even have qualified as a blue dog Democrat.
As conservatism spreads more and more to the right, even the middle lies to the left.
In the buildup to the election, if candidates like Hawley court the Tea Party and Trump, he risks a chunk of the rural vote, especially if the fortunes of farm and rural-related legislation go against Middle America. When elephants stampede, natives get trampled. There is a distinct possibility that any laissez faire, beer-pong approach to policy holds awful consequences for rural communities and Missouri.
Republicans seem to feel that reducing taxes mostly for rich folks will bring us all together in a Kumbaya moment at the polls. But as much of rural America struggles with infrastructure like roads and bridges or water and sewer (some of that would be taken care of by a good farm bill), farmers of every persuasion, from dairy to beef and pork and crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, almost universally face declining purchasing-power dollars. Things like estate tax repeal really only benefit the most wealthy among us (farm couples already have close to a $12 million exemption). Removal of expense related tax deductions like interest on borrowed capital farmers have utilized for decades, while allowing accelerated depreciation of up to a half-million dollars in farm equipment and infrastructure purchases means nothing when we lack income to offset it or money to buy that stuff in the first place.
As promises are made during the long election process, some will make pronouncements of support for coal-fired energy, abortion laws, and draining the swamp. They may even talk about religious freedom and guns. But where hard work still counts along with the lives of people who do it, most stalwart rural Missourians who vote, who helped propel Trump to the top, won’t have much to say. But they will be listening. Only when the votes are cast will we know how they perceive the future and the people who will determine it in Washington.
That’s why Claire may surprise some people—again.
Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, lives in Langdon, Missouri.