Iowa can have a magical effect on visiting politicians.
Peripheral concerns become major issues. Long-standing policy positions melt like spring runoff in the Des Moines River.
It’s not the enchanting allure of Ottumwa, or the rhapsody of gazing upon row after row of soybeans, marching like green sentries to the unbroken horizon.
What captivates is Iowa’s role as the first state to vote in the presidential nominating process.
A victory or even a surprisingly strong finish in the precinct caucuses can transform a candidate overnight from also-ran to serious White House contender. (See Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum.) A loss or unexpectedly weak performance can strangle a presidential campaign in its infancy. (Too many to list here.)
So performing well is extremely important and that, in turn, requires a certain solicitude toward Iowa and the issues that Iowans care about.
Which helps explain why then-Vice President Al Gore spent so much time ahead of his 2000 Democratic presidential campaign touting his support for Iowa flood relief, years after the waters had receded and the rest of the world had moved on.
Or why the self-described straight-talking Arizona Sen. John McCain switched to favor lucrative ethanol subsidies for Iowa farmers in 2008 after opposing them when he ran for president the first time in 2000 -- a campaign in which the Arizona Republican skipped Iowa and blew off the caucuses.
Now a fresh set of White House hopefuls are angling for Iowa’s approval, among them New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has a decision to make: sitting on his desk in Trenton is an animal-welfare bill that would forbid the use of confining metal cages for pregnant pigs.
There are relatively few hog farmers in New Jersey, and the measure passed the Legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support. One survey found that more than 9 in 10 New Jersey voters were supportive.
“I’ve said we should change New Jersey’s nickname from ‘the Garden State’ to ‘the Humane State,’" said Democratic state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who sponsored the law.
But there are a great many hogs and hog farmers in Iowa, the nation’s leading pork producer, and there the legislation is far less popular -- at least within the agriculture industry, which carries enormous economic and political weight, even as the state grows more urban and its increasingly citified voters less tied to the soil.
“Call Bruce Braley and ask him how important farmers and agriculture, including hogs, are to Iowa,” suggested Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist and expert on rural politics. “He will begin to sob on the phone.”
(Braley, once a strong favorite for an open U.S. Senate seat, lost earlier this month in good part because the Democratic congressman and former trial lawyer was seen as out of touch with agricultural Iowa and, worse, even a bit contemptuous of the state’s farmers.)
When it comes to ear-to-the-ground understanding, there may be no one better in all of Iowa than Terry Branstad, a Republican who was just reelected to an unprecedented sixth term as governor. He made a point of sharing his opposition to the hog-crate legislation during one of Christie’s several visits to the state this year. “He’s always advocating for issues that are important to Iowans and our economy,” said Jimmy Centers, a Branstad spokesman.
For Christie, this poses a dilemma.
He rejected a version of the pregnant pig bill last year, saying in a veto message that “the proper balancing of the humane treatment of gestating pigs with the interests of farmers” is best left to New Jersey’s Agriculture Department and other experts.
The measure was subsequently rewritten to address that concern, placing more authority in the department’s hands. Now Christie has until early December to act on the revised legislation.
The governor may have already made up his mind, according to NJ.com.
“I indicated to him that I could not understand how someone who has never stepped foot on a pig farm … could ever understand [the use of gestation crates] or why they should even have any opinion on the use of them,” Bill Tentinger, former head of the Iowa Pork Producers Assn., told the news organization. “And he said to me, ‘I agree with you.’”
A spokesman for Christie, contacted for this article, referred to last year’s veto statement but otherwise had no comment.
Lesniak, the bill’s sponsor, said that he had not heard directly from Christie but that if the report of another intended veto was true, “It’s not just an insult to me but to the state of New Jersey.”
Although frequently described as critic of the governor, Lesniak said the two had worked cooperatively in the past, including on first-in-the-nation legislation that Christie signed in August forbidding the buying or selling of ivory products in New Jersey.
“I guess there aren’t any elephants in Iowa,” Lesniak said, dryly.