DES MOINES, Iowa — The first-ever Iowa Ag Summit came to a close on Saturday in Des Moines.
The summit, sponsored and hosted by agri-business mogul and major GOP donor Bruce Rastetter, catered to a serious crowd of business-minded rural conservatives eager to see how well-versed the field of potential Republican candidates were on the issues that matter most to Iowans.
Here are The Hill's top five takeaways:
Chris Christie can’t catch a break
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie followed up his unmemorable performance at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend with another flat showing at the summit in Des Moines.
The early-morning crowd didn’t seem warmed up yet for Christie, the first GOP contender of the day to sit for the question-and-answer session. But he didn’t help his cause by continually turning questions about agriculture policy into broader attacks against the Obama administration, arguments that summit-goers weren’t necessarily there to hear.
To top it off, the speaker system didn’t fully project Christie’s address until he was handed a microphone midway through. And the New Jersey governor was heckled by a handful of protesters who had traveled from the Garden State to harass their governor.
“My people follow me everywhere,” Christie said, after talking them down. “I'm magnetic…They can't stay away from me.”
It was his best moment of the day.
Ethanol subsides are a sticky issue for Republicans
Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS), which require an amount of ethanol and biofuels be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, are wildly popular in the first-in-the-nation caucus state because they boost the corn industry, one of the cornerstones of the Iowa economy.
But it’s a sticky issue for Republicans, who are typically eager to line up against federal intervention in the private markets.
Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE has been the most vocal opponent of the standards, and he stood his ground on Saturday, calling the RFS “corporate welfare.”
“While I recognize that this is a gathering of a lot of folks where the answer you’d like to hear is, ‘I’m for the RFS,’ ” Cruz said, provoking ironic applause from a few in the crowd.
“That’d be the easy thing to do,” Cruz continued. “But I’ll tell you, people are pretty fed up by the politicians who go around telling one group one thing and another group another thing, and then they go to Washington and don’t do anything they said they’re going to do.”
The crowd was cool to his message.
Other potential candidates tried to have it both ways.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the RFS should be phased out, but set the date for doing so nearly a decade away.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said that he would normally oppose such federal meddling, but that the market isn’t “free and open” anyway because Big Oil has a corner on the energy industry.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was previously a vocal critic of the policy, argued in the same vein as Walker, saying the RFS shouldn’t be disposed of while the oil industry continues to benefit from massive tax breaks.
Cruz still relishes his role as a rhetorical bomb thrower
The Texas senator may have melted into the background for some of the contentious fights on Capitol Hill since beginning his move towards a presidential run, but he’ll continue to delight in making headlines as a conservative agitator.
Following his address at the summit, Cruz held court with reporters, and demanded the Justice Department investigate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMeghan McCain: 'SNL' parodies made me feel like 'laughing stock of the country' Hill: Trump reelection would spur 'one constitutional crisis after another' Trump defends indicted GOP congressman MORE’s use of a personal email account as Secretary of State.
Always tapped in to undercurrents rumbling in conservative circles, Cruz ricocheted off that argument to suggest that the Justice Department’s charges against Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWhy is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates MORE (D-N.J.) were political retribution against the New Jersey Democrat for criticizing the White House’s negotiations with Iran.
Immigration reform isn’t a non-starter among all Iowans
This wasn’t the same crowd that attended CPAC last weekend. Many agribusiness entrepreneurs rely on foreign laborers, and the summit-goers in Des Moines didn’t reactively shout down arguments in favor of immigration reform.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) might have had the best reception of the day at the conference, and he made an impassioned argument in favor of Republicans working with Democrats on an immigration reform bill that includes a path to legalization.
“This idea of self-deportation is not going to work, and politically it is killing us,” Graham told The Hill after the summit. “Criminals and felons are not welcome, but if you’ve been here, you’re going to get a chance to stay if you pass a background check, learn the language, pay back taxes, and get in the back of the line…I want that pathway.”
Bush, who stood his ground last weekend in front of a hostile crowd at CPAC, laid out an even more forceful argument on Saturday in Des Moines.
“Immigrants that are here need to have a path to legal status,” Bush said. “Nobody I know has a plan to deal with illegal immigration other than to just say they’re going to be rounded up and taken away.”
Bush said those in the country illegally should be given the opportunity to earn legal status if they work, don’t break the law and learn English.
“This is the only serious thoughtful way to deal with this,” Bush said.
Bush intends to play in Iowa
Any notion that Bush would forgo the Hawkeye State in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination can officially be put to bed.
In addition to the summit, Bush’s packed schedule in Iowa included a fundraiser for Rep. David Young (R-Iowa), a meeting with key activists in Waukee, and a meet-and-greet with supporters in Cedar Rapids.
Steve Scheffler, the president of Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, said he’s been in contact with the Bush team about hosting future events in the state, and the former Florida governor said at two separate events that if he runs for president, he intends to be a frequent visitor to the state.
“If I get beyond where we are today, I’ll be back here a lot and I’ll be asking for your support,” Bush said to cheers at the event with supporters at a Pizza Ranch in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night.