Could Ted Cruz Kill Iowa’s Ethanol Mandate?

Iowa voters are supposed to love the ethanol subsidy and hate immigration. So why are they embracing a candidate who disagrees with both of these positions?

12.10.15 6:00 AM ET

With the caucuses closing in fast, something very interesting is happening in Iowa.

Long considered by many in the GOP (including yours truly) to be a hotbed of unbending support for the irrational ethanol subsidy and unyielding opposition to anything that might be perceived as “amnesty” for unauthorized immigrants, Iowa is proving some of its critics wrong. Based on some present trends, it looks as though Sen. Ted Cruz could win the caucuses there—and if he does, it will arguably show that Iowa has moved away from the positions that many consider to define it.

There has been lots of buzz about a Monmouth poll from earlier this month that showed Cruz beating Donald Trump in the Hawkeye State by six points. The poll confirms a trend that both anecdotal evidence and polling data has suggested for some time: Cruz is on the rise in Iowa, while Trump is static, or slipping to second place. A Quinnipiac poll from last month showed Cruz moving up; it was reported by the very well-connected Rich Lowry of National Review on Dec. 5 that another GOP contender (i.e., not Cruz) has internal polling now showing the Texas senator leading in Iowa.

On one level, this all makes sense: Cruz is an evangelical firebrand, obviously very conservative, a fierce critic of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, and also a staunch opponent of government regulation. He has been endorsed by Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose voice carries weight in Iowa Republican circles.

But on the other, it is odd.

Cruz is inarguably the most high-profile opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard, otherwise knows as the ethanol mandate—a pro-ethanol regulatory subsidy—within the GOP primary field. Ethanol is big business in Iowa, and it’s widely believed that the mandate, which is opposed by everyone from conservatives to left-wing environmentalists, still exists in large part due to the outsize political influence the state has in nominating contests.

Going up against the ethanol lobby is a difficult thing to do in the Iowa caucuses, and Cruz is so anti-RFS that he’s being targeted with factually dubious ads against him that claim he opposes ethanol subsidies, but supports oil subsidies. For the record, Cruz supports a bill to end all tax credits for oil, as well as other energy sources, and has asked that the ads be pulled.

You’d think most Iowa Republicans wouldn’t embrace a candidate who opposes the ethanol mandate and is more Reaganite than close-the-borders-and-deport-them-all on immigration. For example, King is a strong backer of government supports for the ethanol industry, and probably the country’s most vocal and recognizable immigration hawk serving in elected office. On these two issues, he is probably more in line with Donald Trump than Cruz. Trump strongly supports the Renewable Fuel Standard and government assistance for the ethanol industry in general, and of course is the most outspoken opponent of immigration in the race.

Yet, King has cut an ad for Cruz—which happens not to mention his ethanol or immigration positions—that urges Iowans to “do your duty for God and country” and caucus for Ted Cruz. Not just “go with Cruz because he’s better than the rest.” But “do your duty for God and country.” That is quite an endorsement, especially for someone who isn’t quite in line with Iowans on two issues that political strategists traditionally viewed as critical in the state.

There are probably a few takeaways here.

First, Trump is extremely liberal and big government on an array of issues, and King is generally not—so there are reasons why, despite disagreement with Cruz on immigration and ethanol, King would have an interest in backing him and shunning Trump.

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The same can of course be said for a lot of rank-and-file Iowa Republicans. How many of them, for example, can really get comfortable with the idea of going out to caucus on a very cold night and publicly supporting a guy who at every available opportunity says complimentary things about socialized medicine schemes?

Second, the importance of both rock-ribbed support for ethanol and fierce opposition to immigration and/or anything that could be derided as “amnesty,” even in Iowa Republican circles, has probably been vastly overstated by media and Republican consultants like myself, looking at the state from the outside. Undoubtedly, other issues are very important there, even though one of its major industries is rather reliant on the ethanol subsidy.

Third, attitudes about government subsidies and/or immigration might actually be changing, including in Iowa, perhaps because the 2016 field includes some people like Cruz who are very, very good at explaining how their conservative philosophy translates into their policy positions on these matters—and why fellow conservatives should not support mandates or regulatory subsidies, or things like a mass deportation program carrying an estimated $600 billion price tag.

But whatever one’s specific read on the situation, if you are a true economic and fiscal conservative, the news out of Iowa, for now at least, appears to be good. At present, there is visible daylight between the Hawkeye State and its caricature. And there’s good reason to think that Iowans may be the first to take a decisive step to shut down a man viewed by many as a conservative impostor.

So, for now, anyway, three cheers for Iowa. May the trend of Cruz and other true conservatives rising and Trump falling continue.

Liz Mair is an advocate for immigration reform, an opponent of ethanol mandates and subsidies, and an opponent of Donald Trump.