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Collin Peterson: Farmers fear McCain

People living in rural communities tend to be socially conservative, but farmers are nevertheless fiercely protective of the New Deal farm subsidies. Bad-mouthing those subsidies tends to make rural voters run in the other direction.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson

Winning the farm vote is always tricky.

On one hand, people living in rural communities tend to be socially conservative, and their voting records reflect that. That said, farmers are fiercely protective of the New Deal era government programs that bolster their businesses, and bad-mouthing those subsidies tend to make rural voters run in the other direction.

That dynamic is already playing out in Minnesota, where more than 27 million acres are dedicated to farming. (PDF)

Of the two, McCain is going to have the hardest time wooing rural voters, said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn. As House Agriculture Committee Chairman, he just saw his $289 billion farm bill signed into law.

“Farmers in my state are scared to death of McCain,” he said. “He’s never liked anything that we’ve done. I think he’s going to have a hard time with farmers.”

Opposed farm programs
McCain, who voted against the 2002 farm bill, has never been afraid to voice his distaste for agricultural programs; he says they are bad for international trade and bad for taxpayers. And though he didn’t show up this spring to cast his final vote on the new measure, McCain called it a “a bloated piece of legislation that will do more harm than good for most farmers and consumers.”

Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said that when it comes to farm policy, McCain won’t differ much from Bush. For example, both have criticized a plan that would divert excess sugar to ethanol production for being an expensive give-away to the sugar industry.

“When you start looking at his voting record, he’s not much in favor of what’s popular in farm country,” Peterson said, adding that McCain’s stance on sugar supports won’t play well with the state’s sugar beet growers.

McCain and Obama have a lot to learn about the farm industry, said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. He points out that farmers have a major stake in the debate over energy prices and alternative fuels as well.

“Both of them need to better understand that we’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution when it comes to energy,” Papp said.

Obama on farm measures
For his part, Obama doesn’t have much of a record on farming issues. In 2002, when the last measure was passed, he was not yet in office. And this year he did not show up for the final debate, though he did support the measure. Save a plan on his web site to help rural communities, Obama has taken a relatively low-key approach to farming issues during the campaign, focusing instead on the war, the economy and health care.

In the meantime, Peterson said the Farmers Union has invited Obama to the group’s annual Farmfest in August, an event that helped spawn House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reputation as a friend of the farmer after she attended last year.

But so far, Peterson said, he’s not heard back from the campaign.

“It’s hard to schedule these presidential types,” he said.