Ethanol Is Great Energy Divide for GOP Presidential Field

Ethanol Is Great Energy Divide for GOP Presidential Field

By Erin McPike - June 17, 2011

Four years ago, most of the top Republican presidential candidates descended on Iowa vowing to do whatever it takes to prop up ethanol, a product that can trace its roots to Midwestern states that raise corn in abundance.

Fast-forward to the coming 2012 presidential campaign -- with its focus on the crush of government spending and the need to cut it -- and ethanol subsidies don't sit well with the GOP base, and certainly not the tea party. With the exception of front-runner Mitt Romney, the most well-known candidates are rushing away from steadfast support for ethanol, even if it hurts their standing in the Hawkeye State, where caucuses are scheduled for early February next year.

And now, while the leading Republicans hash out their strategies and determine which early-voting states to focus their efforts on, a tug-of-war is developing between Iowa and New Hampshire over energy policy. So far, most of the candidates are hewing more toward what the New Hampshire electorate wants to hear -- no subsidies -- when it comes to energy policy. (On Thursday, the Senate voted to end the subsidies on July 1; the legislation is unlikely to win approval in the House, however.)

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for one, said earlier this month that he doesn't plan to compete in Iowa's caucuses because he doesn't back ethanol supports, and he figures that such a stance will impede his chances there. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, likewise, said in New Hampshire earlier this month that she's not in favor of energy subsidies of any kind. And former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in Iowa that he wants to phase out ethanol subsidies -- a tactic that was part of what he called his truth-telling tour.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, who may factor prominently in her native Iowa, has professed support for ethanol production as part of an energy strategy, but she has been cautious regarding of subsidies. A tea party darling, Bachmann has not yet made her position clear on the issue. The National Review reports that she told Fox Business Channel earlier this year: "When it comes to ethanol, I think that it's a part of our solution, but there's concerns about that because of the subsidies. I think it's just something that we have to look at going forward."

But it was Romney, who leads the polling in New Hampshire by a large margin, who doubled down on his support for ethanol subsidies as he mulls the extent to which he'll compete in Iowa, even as he places a premium on the Granite State. (In 2008, he finished a disappointing second in both states.)

And that stance, of course, irked some leading Republicans in New England, including former Sen. John Sununu, who authored an op-ed for the Boston Globe taking Romney to task for his position.

"Political pandering comes in all shapes and sizes, but every four years the presidential primary brings us in contact with its purest form -- praising ethanol subsidies amid the cornfields of Iowa. Though it sounds like a caricature, the photo tells the story: Mitt Romney, holding a golden ear of corn, declaring recently, ‘I support the subsidy of ethanol,' " Sununu wrote.

Sununu went on to point out that Pawlenty is positioning himself as a direct alternative to Romney with his plan to phase out those subsidies. And though Sununu suspects Romney's stance is designed simply to win votes in Iowa, he believes that, with a $1.5 trillion deficit, "even" voters in Iowa understand the need to end subsidies.

And Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Branstad intimated as much to RCP in an interview this week.

"There are plenty of people that recognize that we need to have an energy policy that doesn't rely solely on oil but also increases our wind energy," he said. "There are a lot of things that we can do differently to reduce our dependency on foreign oil."

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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