Competition at Top of Ticket Could Boost Democrat for Agriculture

Nov 1, 2018

When former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey was tapped for a federal job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year, his old job was filled by his deputy secretary of agriculture, Mike Naig.

Last spring, Naig ran for the Republican nomination in a crowded primary but did not win outright and later secured the nomination in a convention vote. Naig faces two challengers.

Who are the candidates?

Mike Naig. Like Gov. Kim Reynolds, Naig is a Republican who was appointed after his boss got tapped for the Trump administration. Naig is a former Monsanto lobbyist who also held other agribusiness positions before Northey tapped him for deputy secretary in 2013. His family has a farm in northwest Iowa.

Tim Gannon. A Democrat who farms with his family in Mingo, Gannon worked in former U.S. Secretary of Agricutlure Tom Vilsack’s administration in the Risk Management Agency, which is responsible for the federal crop insurance program. Gannon also worked for Vilsack when he was governor of Iowa.

Rick Stewart. He’s a Libertarian from Cedar Rapids and is one of the founders of Frontier Co-op, a big wholesaler of herbs, spices and teas based in Norway, Iowa.

What does Gannon, the Democrat, want to bring to the job?

One big thing is that he wants the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund to be funded. That’s the tax voters approved in 2010 but the legislature has never implemented. Gannon says the money would likely attract more federal dollars for conservation.

He’s also interested in the state committing more to agriculture research.

“Investing in the kind of research at Iowa State (University) that in the future will help us not only be more productive, help feed a growing world, gaining that productivity while also doing a better job taking care of our soil and water,” Gannon tells IPR’s Amy Mayer. “But also figuring out what are those other things that we can do with what we grow and raise.”

Who is the Libertarian candidate and where does he fit in?

Rick Stewart has a lot of complaints about federal agriculture policy. He says long-standing crops subsidies, the renewable fuel standard that many here herald for growing the market for Iowa corn, and trade policies that have led to tariffs that decimated the Chinese market for U.S. soybeans all have hurt Iowa farmers more than they’ve helped.

Stewart generally opposes government programs, but he thinks the state does need to set a water quality requirement and hold all landowners—rural, urban and suburban—to task for reaching the goal.

What does Mike Naig, the Republican, say Iowans can expect if he’s elected?

Naig thinks the water quality law passed this year will build upon the progress made during the five years since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was put in place. So don’t expect big changes in that arena.

Like Gannon, Naig says he’ll support research at Iowa State, especially for new products made from Iowa crops. But he also has ideas for spurring private investment in the agriculture sector.

“That’s making sure that we’ve got the right business climate, the right regulatory climate for (new business) and also supporting things like the research and development tax credits, the renewable chemical tax credit,” Naig tells IPR’s Amy Mayer. “There’s things we can do from a tax-policy standpoint that can help incentivize that kind of investment as well.”

How is the race playing out?

With polls showing the governor’s race between Republican Kim Reynolds and Democrat Fred Hubbell pretty tight, “there’s been a lot of speculation about how down-ticket races will be affected,” says Mayer.

The agriculture secretary's office has been in Republican hands since Bill Northey was elected in 2006. The liberal blog Iowa Starting Line shared a memo detailing the Iowa Farm Bureau’s effort to create a fund to buy ads supporting Mike Naig.

As of two weeks ago, Tim Gannon had raised more campaign money than Naig. “One of the things Farm Bureau and some of the other ag groups often repeat is that agriculture needs ‘certainty’ or ‘stability’—things that are in short supply with the tariffs and the expired federal farm bill,” Mayer says.

Clearly, Republicans hope to make the case for staying the course with their candidate, while the Democrat may be able to trade on increased turnout from people who are frustrated with the status quo at the top of the ticket.