Trump hopes to help vulnerable Iowa Republicans with his big boost for ethanol

Key Points
  • With his move to lift a ban on a higher ethanol fuel blend, President Donald Trump aims to boost several Iowa Republicans ahead of November's midterm elections.
  • Trump pushes to help vulnerable GOP officials Rep. David Young, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Rod Blum.
  • Iowa is the biggest ethanol producer in the country.
Voters cast ballots for the midterm elections at the Polk County Election Office on October 8, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa.Today was the first day of early voting in the state. 
Scott Olson | Getty Images

With his latest energy policy move, President Donald Trump aims in part to boost Iowa Republicans fighting to hold critical offices next month.

On Tuesday afternoon, the president ordered his administration to lift summertime restrictions on sales of E15, a higher ethanol blend of gasoline, Iowa Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst told reporters at the White House. The state's corn growers and the politicians who represent them have pushed for the change, arguing it will stabilize the state's farm industry amid trade uncertainty.

Trump's change could help the two vulnerable Iowa Republicans expected to join him at a Tuesday night rally: Rep. David Young and Gov. Kim Reynolds. The ethanol action could also aid Rep. Rod Blum, one of the House incumbents considered most likely to lose a seat in this year's midterm elections.

The president's policy move and the Council Bluffs, Iowa, rally come as Democrats threaten to flip 23 GOP-held House seats and take control of the chamber after the Nov. 6 elections. Republicans cannot afford to lose any House seats in the face of Democratic enthusiasm and historical struggles for a president's party in midterm elections.

PEOSTA, IA - JULY 26: Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds (R) and President Donald Trump participate in a round table at Northeast Iowa Community College on July 26, 2018 in Peosta, Iowa. 
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Trump's stop in Iowa, the largest ethanol-producing state, comes amid a blitz of campaign rallies in support of GOP candidates facing tough races. He campaigned in both Minnesota and Kansas in recent days. Aside from the ethanol announcement, Trump has also touted his revised North American Free Trade Agreement as a boon to farmers facing damage from his trade policy.

"It's great for our farmers," Trump said Tuesday of the tweaked deal that he calls the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. In an earlier tweet previewing his rally, Trump said farmers "are very happy with USMCA!"

Trump tweet

It is unclear whether reaching a revised North American trade deal and lifting the ban on E15 sales will do enough to lift endangered House Republicans in Iowa and other farm states. Trump has a poor approval rating in many swing districts, and Democrats have made health care their main campaign issue following unpopular GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Republican incumbents also face a fundraising disadvantage in many battleground areas, making the environment even more challenging.

Trump will speak Tuesday in Iowa's 3rd District, a seat held by second-term Rep. David Young. Earlier in the day, the president told reporters that "we'll be talking a little ethanol tonight."

Young may need an assist from Trump to keep his seat. His district in the state's southwest corner includes the state capital of Des Moines and the outskirts of Nebraska's largest city, Omaha, as well as pro-Trump rural areas.

The area has only a slight red tint: the nonpartisan Cook Political Report's Partisan Voter Index rates it as an "R+1" seat. PVI measures how districts vote in recent presidential elections relative to the country as a whole. A New York Times/Siena poll found Young in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Cindy Axne, a small-business owner.

Nonpartisan race forecasters consider the contest a toss-up. Young is expected to issue a statement on the president's policy change later Tuesday.

Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, attends a House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the FY2019 Budget on April 18, 2018. 
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

In a statement Tuesday, Axne said she was "pleased" that the Trump administration "is finally making good on its promise to extend E15 access to help our corn growers." But she added that "our farmers are still suffering from President Trump's unnecessary tariffs," and urged Young to call out the president over the duties.

Young and Reynolds both will reportedly join Trump at his rally on Tuesday. Reynolds may also need Trump's help in a tough election against Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell. Polls have shown a tight margin between the two in a race prognosticators consider a toss-up.

Reynolds, who is currently filling the remainder of former Gov. Terry Branstad's term, cheered the president's planned move on Monday.

"Today's decision from President Trump is a big win for Iowa. I am grateful to the president for following through on his promise to allow the sale of E15 year round--a decision that will bring greater stability to the ag economy," she said in a statement. "Once again, President Trump has shown his commitment to farmers in Iowa and the rest of the country."

Trump's plan could affect at least one more Iowa politician who faces electoral peril next month. Republican Rep. Rod Blum is considered an underdog to keep his 1st District House seat against Democratic state lawmaker Abby Finkenauer.

One survey suggests Blum has a lot of ground to make up before November. He trails Finkenauer by 15 percentage points, according to a New York Times/Siena poll taken last month. The poll showed potential trade-related problems for Blum, as a majority of respondents said they opposed the president's tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.

Blum welcomed the announcement on Tuesday morning.

"I applaud President Trump's decision to continue e15 sales into the summer months," he said in a statement provided by his campaign. "After discussing with him the benefits of this decision during his recent visit to Dubuque (Iowa), I have no doubt he is looking out for the best interests of our farmers."