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Farm Belt Woes Worrying GOP : Party Sees Defections Cutting Political Gains

Times Political Writer

Only two years ago, Minnesota farmer David Johnson was a loyal Republican and a delegate to the triumphal GOP convention that renominated President Reagan. Since then, however, Johnson has not only switched to the Democrats but is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Rep. Vin Weber.

“The farm community is coming apart at the seams,” the newly minted Democratic candidate explains as he seeks the votes of hard-hit grain growers here in southern Minnesota. “I refuse to support a political party that’s bent on destroying that which I put most of my life juices into trying to build and sustain.”

Johnson’s rebellion, coming at a time when Republicans brag about all the Democrats they have lured into their fold, is only one indication of political dangers threatening the GOP in states stretching across the nation’s heartland from Ohio and Indiana to the high plains of Kansas and Nebraska.

The farms and small towns of this region have traditionally been the GOP’s electoral backbone and its ideological heart, giving life to the party’s ingrained conservative ethic of hard work and self-reliance. Yet the farm economy on which much of the Midwest depends is undergoing a dramatic, apparently continuing decline. And in many places, Republican candidates are in jeopardy in this fall’s elections--a development that poses new dangers to GOP hopes of achieving majority status.

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And even if many individual Republican officeholders survive on Election Day, there are indications that the farm crisis has cost the GOP a historically important opportunity to expand on its Reagan-era gains by taking some of the shine off Republicanism. In Iowa, for example, Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley says that without the farm recession, “the Republicans would have a landslide victory in Iowa this fall. With it, there are major problems.”

‘Worst Conditions’

Republicans concede the seriousness of the economic slump--"the worst conditions in my lifetime,” says Weber, Johnson’s opponent in Minnesota. But individual Republicans believe they can survive politically by distancing themselves from the unpopular farm policies of the Reagan Administration, which generally sought to reduce federal support programs even as the farm economy was plunging deeper into crisis.

“Because some of us have generally shown an independent stance against the Administration and tried to represent the views of the farmers, we have moderated the ill feeling that would normally be there,” says Grassley, who has won towering voter approval ratings in part by conspicuously challenging the White House.

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The success of such maverick tactics for Grassley and some other GOP officeholders, coupled with the difficulty of formulating any clear solution to American agriculture’s economic dilemmas, causes even Democrats to admit that the political environment in the Midwest farm community is more depressed than rebellious.

“Public attitudes are as flat as the land,” says Waterloo, Iowa, lawyer Dave Nagle, Democratic candidate for the House seat now held by retiring Republican Rep. Cooper Evans. Noting that many farmers seem resigned to their fate, Nagle adds: “Democrats have to hope that by November the farmers’ mood changes from resignation to revenge against the Republicans.”

Grassley says: “People are turned off of politics and political parties.”

Hard to Assign Blame

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Contributing to the muddled outlook and perhaps helping to shield Republican candidates from damage at the polls is the tangled nature of the farm problem. Responsibility is hard to assign to one political party or another.

Most farmers agree that today’s bust is rooted in the boom psychology of the pre-Reagan years, when farmers expanded their holdings in the belief that the worldwide crusade against hunger offered them an infinite market. Almost no one foresaw the forces that would wreck this dream--first the credit crunch, then the shattering deflation of land values at home, along with vigorous new competition abroad.

Enough Blame

“There’s enough blame to go around,” says Kenneth Stone, an Iowa State University agricultural economist.

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Some farmers blame their bankers for imposing high interest rates, Stone notes. Others blame Earl L. Butz, agriculture secretary under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, for encouraging them to expand production, while still others condemn former President Jimmy Carter for imposing an embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union in retaliation for the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“The farmers are a lot at fault themselves,” adds Lars Johnson, a retired Minnesota farmer who talked about the problem recently in Lake Benton’s Someplace Else Cafe. Johnson recalled that a few years back farmers paid $1,300 an acre for land that now will fetch only about $400.

‘Everybody Is Guilty’

“Don’t forget our land grant college professors who told us to buy all that land and feed the world,” said Jack Delaney, whose 1,800 acres, valued at about $1,250,000 in 1978, are now worth only about $250,000. “Everybody is guilty.”

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That sort of talk is music to the ears of Republican strategists. “The farmers are not blaming Ronald Reagan,” claims Republican National Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. “It’s not a question of their being in a pickle because of what Ronald Reagan did.”

Nevertheless, even if the causes of the crisis antedate Reagan’s presidency, it was on his watch that interest rates peaked and land values crashed. Reagan enraged agriculture leaders last year by vetoing emergency legislation that would have provided billions of dollars in new loans and loan guarantees to hard-pressed farmers. He proposed a dramatic reduction in federal farm support programs last year, but reluctantly signed a bill before Christmas that extended the subsidies.

Also, the Reagan Administration has irked many with the way it has talked about farmers and their problems. Particularly irritating were the caustic comments from former Budget Director David A. Stockman about the selfishness of farmers and Reagan’s now-notorious 1985 quip that instead of striving to export grain, the country would do better to ship its farmers overseas.

“The President killed us on that,” Weber complains. “It’s the worst thing he’s done.”

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Backed Democrats’ Budget

Weber demonstrated his independence from the White House last month when he voted for the House Democrats’ version of the 1987 budget, a fiscal approach strongly opposed by the President. Weber was one of only 17 Republicans to do so.

“It accomplished what we set out to accomplish on agriculture,” an aide says.

When Grassley heard of Reagan’s remark about exporting the farmers, he told a meeting of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce: “I think a better idea is, keep the farmers, keep the grain and export David Stockman.”

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Farm policy is only one area where Grassley has charted a different course from that of the Administration. The senator was an early advocate of the idea of freezing all federal spending, including Defense Department funds. And he voted against the White House on the MX missile and vigorously pursued allegations of fraud and mismanagement at the Pentagon.

Grassley’s success at combining independence with devotion to his constituents is evidenced by his high standing in the polls and by the friendly reception he was given during a recent visit to Eagle Grove, a town of about 4,200 in rural north-central Iowa.

During an hourlong question-and-answer session, Grassley dealt patiently with a range of individual problems. He reassured the mother of a handicapped child about the impact of budget cuts for special education and offered to assist a businessman worried about what the tax overhaul legislation would do to his plans for expansion.

Eagle Grove’s prospects are closely tied to those of the farm economy: Hanging outside the Brenton State Bank is the kind of electric sign that usually registers time and temperature, but in Eagle Grove the bank sign reports current prices of corn, soybeans and hogs.

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Yet, at least in public, no one complained directly to Grassley about the depressed farm economy--perhaps because Eagle Grove’s citizens like to look at the bright side of life. The town describes itself as “a city on the go--with room to grow.” When the weekly Eagle Grove Eagle ran a series of articles on the impact of the farm slump, Editor John Neibergall recalls: “We were criticized for presenting too much gloom and doom.”

Points to Frustration

Nonetheless, although Grassley is well regarded in Eagle Grove, Daryl Watts, former mayor of the town and a member of the GOP county committee, thinks there could be trouble in November for other Republicans. “There’s an awful lot of frustration right now,” he says. “I think people are looking for a change.”

Branstad Seen Vulnerable

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Statewide, for example, while Grassley’s Senate seat is considered safe, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is believed to be in difficulty because, Democrats contend, he appears to lack strong leadership qualities. A recent Des Moines Register poll showed Branstad running no better than even against his Democratic challenger, Lowell Junkins.

Overall in the Farm Belt, Democrats believe the farm economy will aid their candidates in House races in particularly troubled areas such as Minnesota’s 2nd District, where Johnson is challenging Weber, and Iowa’s 3rd District, where Nagle is seeking to replace Evans. House Democratic strategists also say the farm issue will make it easier for Democratic incumbents to win reelection to seats that are normally hotly contested.

As for the Senate races in the Midwest, incumbent Republicans Bob Dole of Kansas and Dan Quayle of Indiana are strongly favored to win reelection, in part because no strong Democratic challenger came forward to run against them, and most other GOP incumbents appear to be in front.

But Democrats, struggling to win the four seats that would switch control of the Senate to their party, claim their candidate is ahead of a Republican incumbent in one heartland state--South Dakota--and contend they have a good chance of ousting the GOP in North Dakota, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

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‘A Pressure Cooker’

One of the Democrats’ top pollsters, Peter Hart, likens the area to “a pressure cooker.” “You can feel the frustration slowly building up,” he says, “and I think it’s going to pop in October.”

And beyond this fall’s elections, there is the larger consequence: Grassley cites opinion polls that seem to show that the much-heralded Republican drive to become the nation’s No. 1 political party has been hindered by the farm slump.

“We’re finding that Republicans don’t do well when people are asked which party would you turn to if you wanted things to go better,” Grassley acknowledges, although he adds quickly: “We do almost as well as the Democrats do.”

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