RINGSTED, Iowa Democrats fighting an uphill battle to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to use rural angst over the failure of congressional Republicans to pass a farm bill to win some Midwestern seats in the November 6 election.
The farm bill, which sets subsidies for everything from crop insurance to milk production, expired on October 1 after the Republican majority in the House could not muster enough votes to pass a new law.
No race demonstrates the Democratic strategy better than in western Iowa, where Christie Vilsack, the wife of President Barack Obama's agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, is stressing the farm bill in a bid to unseat conservative Republican Representative Steve King.
"The lack of a farm bill right now has the farming community up in arms," said Bryan Kruse, 34, who has two small farms and works for another farmer to pay the bills outside Ringsted, population 422. "We need to get something done."
Kruse wants to know if he can still get federal crop insurance to protect his corn and soybeans against disasters like this year's drought.
Democrats need to gain 25 seats in the House to win back the majority they lost in the Republican sweep in 2010, and most analysts consider it a tall order.
Democrats are focusing on the farm bill in Iowa, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Colorado and Illinois. It is also a major issue in close U.S. Senate races in Montana and North Dakota, where Republican House members are seeking seats held by Democrats.
But convincing farmers and rural residents is tough in conservative western Iowa. Despite his concerns about the farm bill, lifelong Republican Kruse said he will vote for King, a conservative with a habit of making controversial statements.
"You can't blame that failure on one man," Kruse said, who worries that electing a Democrat such as Vilsack would lead to burdensome and costly regulations for farmers.
A few decaying, abandoned farms near where Kruse works are a sign of the rural decline and slow population growth that cut Iowa's U.S. House seats to four from five after the 2010 census. Redistricting put Kruse in King's new enlarged district, a huge area covering 39 counties dotted with small cities and towns.
Vilsack, whose husband also was Iowa governor, touts the fact that the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate passed a farm bill, but the Republican House did not.
Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, says most Democrats have done a poor job of explaining that, apart from farm subsidies, the farm bill includes food stamps, school lunches and rural development money.
"A big failure of the Democrats is they have not explained the farm bill has broader economic and social implications," Schmidt said. "Christie Vilsack has done better than other Democrats at making that point."
The polls have been close in a race that has drawn a lot of money, but King says he is confident of farmers' support because he has a chance to head the Agriculture Committee if Republicans retain their House majority. King ranks fourth in seniority on the committee but one of those ahead of him is retiring and another is focusing on another committee.
"No one is better placed" to become committee chairman, King told Reuters. "The farm community knows that."
"CONSERVATIVE ALL THE WAY THROUGH"
In Iowa's new 4th District, the yard signs in farm areas predominantly favor King. In small cities and towns, signs for Vilsack are more common.
Iowa Pork Producers Association President Bill Tentinger says American farmers are generally staunchly conservative.
"They're fiscally conservative and socially conservative," he said. "They're conservative all the way through."
Tammy Kobza, Iowa director of the socially conservative group Eagle Forum founded by conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, says she supports King's opposition to abortion and gay marriage, plus his call for repeal of Obama's healthcare reforms.
"Morals matter out here," she said. "Steve King personifies those morals and doesn't want us to be dependent on government."
But thanks to redistricting after the census, almost half of the district is new to King.
"The district is not as conservative as Steve King is used to and not as moderate as Christie Vilsack would like," Iowa State's Schmidt said.
Among Vilsack's supporters is Steve Mahr, 27, an assistant manager at a restaurant in Orange City in King's old district.
"Steve King has been offensive and embarrassing to our district," he said, rattling off controversial remarks King has made about immigrants and dog fighting and his defense of Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican U.S. Senate candidate who said women have biological defenses against pregnancy from "legitimate rape."
"We need someone who'll look out for the people who need to be taken care of," Mahr added. "Not just look out for the rich."
While King is endorsed by the Iowa Farm Bureau, which has designated him a "friend of agriculture," Vilsack is running as a moderate seeking "to create opportunities in small towns and cities" in part through the farm bill.
"Nothing's getting done in Washington," Vilsack said. "I want to be a problem solver who gets things done."
King has won easily in the past, but in a sign of how close the race is he has agreed to a series of debates with Vilsack.
Both candidates have raised about $2 million in campaign contributions.
Vilsack has had contributions from labor groups such as the Service Employees International Union, plus Planned Parenthood. King's donors have included the National Pork Producers Council based in Des Moines and Koch Industries, an energy company run by conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.
Some $2.7 million has also been spent by outside groups.
Tim Hagle, a politics professor at the University of Iowa, said the race is close enough to be swayed by whether Obama or Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the swing state of Iowa by attracting independent voters.
"Both sides have to reach out to those voters if they want to win," Hagle said.
(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Beech)