2016 Iowa caucus is no rural friend

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Thank goodness it’s nearly time to pitch the hay bales back in the barn.

Presidential candidates — declared and exploring — have been milling about Iowa for more than a year. They’ve tucked celebrities and national figures into their suitcases, unpacking them alongside talking points in cities and towns from Rock Rapids to Keosauqua. They’ve posed on our farms, sat at our kitchen tables and strolled the midway at the fair.

But, with the exception of ethanol, few bothered to discuss agriculture, much less ongoing and worsening challenges in rural communities.

To be fair, school transportation budgets, child poverty, broadband access, land values, post office closures, food safety, water quality, workforce challenges and the like aren’t sexy topics. They are nuanced and difficult. Threats of carpet-bombing or promises of wall building drive clicks for the national media.

2016 Iowa Caucus - GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee's shoes are shown as he speaks on the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the 2015 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.
GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s shoes are shown as he speaks on the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the 2015 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Yes, Iowa hosted an ag summit last year — at a deserted fairgrounds in Des Moines with nary a farm field in sight. Let me save you a Google search: The big national take-away from the event was that Texas Republican Ted Cruz stood behind his earlier effort to repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard. Oh, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who later packed his toys and left the presidential sandbox, made a humorous “Hee Haw” reference. Perhaps marking the end of sexism, or at least placing candidates of both genders on equal footing, many national outlets noted which of the men wore cowboy boots.

One Democrat was welcomed to the stage, former state ag secretary and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, making the R-to-D ratio 17-to-1. Too bad rural issues don’t respect party lines.

Only two Democratic candidates — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — have rolled out rural strategy papers.

When I asked rural Iowans attending campaign events this week if they minded ethanol holding center stage, most said how difficult it is for candidates to make equally poignant local and national appeals. Since the subsidies are regional, it’s an easier case to make without the candidate appearing to bow to Iowa alone. It’s also rooted in the national debate surrounding government incentives for alternative energy sources, which means it’s generally a no-research-needed topic for national reporters.

Yet, when asked if RFS was something commonly discussed at local diners or city council meetings, not one person in my non-scientific poll said it was. Locals discuss business openings and closings, uncertainty of rural post offices, lack of education funding, affordability of land and housing, issues with well water, and how many potholes need patched. Ethanol and other biofuels are promising, but still only one sliver of the rural economy.

At the root of it all, they worry about their way of life and what happens when and if rural communities are no longer relevant as more than commuter towns.

That isn’t a concern limited to Iowa or the Midwest. Small towns throughout the nation are waging a war for survival. And this year, in this election, they lost the promise of Iowa’s practicality, except for the hay bale backdrop.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on January 30, 2016. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette