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Most ag groups back McCain
Despite opposition to farm bill, GOP candidate nets farm support, cash

Hank Shaw, Capital Press10/16/08

On a sunny day in May, Republican presidential candidate John McCain walked into one of the nation's leading agricultural counties and attacked the federal farm bill.

McCain blasted the legislation during a Stockton, Calif., rally, saying: "This bill deserves your condemnation. The president's vetoing it and to its everlasting shame, the Congress of the United States - Republican and Democrat - will override the president's veto."

McCain said afterwards at a news conference that he would not shrink from his opposition.

"I'll do what I believe is best for this country and say what I think is best for this country and take those positions," McCain said. "I believe that people will respect me for it and eventually support my candidacy."

With less than a month before the Nov. 4 election, farming and ranching groups around the West are lining up behind the Arizona senator - despite his opposition to key elements of the Farm Bill - to support his candidacy over that of Democrat Barack Obama, the senator representing the traditional farm state of Illinois.

Key endorsements

Both the California and Oregon Farm Bureau federations are backing McCain, as is Western Growers, the nation's largest fruit and vegetable-growing group.

"(McCain) has steadfastly promoted free markets, sensible fiscal policies, repairs of our immigration laws and knows how important to our economy are the fruit, vegetable and nut producers in the West," said Western Growers President Tom Nassif.

California Farm Bureau Federation Doug Mosebar cited McCain's experience with water issues as well as his support for free trade as prime reasons to endorse the Arizona senator.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters at the Maumee Bay Resort in Oregon, Ohio, Tuesday, Oct. 14.
"As a fellow Westerner, John McCain understands the particular issues facing California farmers and ranchers," Mosebar said. "He knows that sustainable farms and ranches depend on reliable water supplies."

While the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has not officially endorsed McCain, a July survey of cattle ranchers done for the group showed that its members preferred McCain to Obama by 87 percent to 10 percent.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain waves to supporters during a rally at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., Tuesday, Oct. 14.

Of the nation's major agricultural groups, only the American Corn Growers Association has endorsed Obama, who has historically been sympathetic to ethanol producers. McCain has opposed ethanol subsidies throughout his career.

"While John McCain is a great man and a true hero, he has built a very pronounced and consistent record on agriculture and ethanol during his 22 years as a U.S. senator, and it is perhaps the single most negative record of any senator," said Keith Bolin, president of American Corn Growers Association.

Financial backing

Even though the bulk of the farming and ranching community are supporting his opponent, Obama is still reaping an unprecedented harvest of campaign cash from agribusiness groups, according to the watchdog group the Center for Responsive Politics.

No Democratic presidential challenger has raised more than Obama's $1.3 million from the industry. Obama has collected nearly twice what 2004 candidate John Kerry did.

Still, McCain is handily outraising Obama among farmers and ranchers, raising nearly $2.4 million, according to the center's data.

President George W. Bush raised $4.9 million from agribusiness in 2004.

Some big-name McCain contributors in the West include Oregon's Joseph Gonyea of Timber Products Co., John Harris from the California beef producer Harris Ranch and Barbara Grimm of the Bakersfield-based vegetable grower Grimmway Farms. Former California GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones of Fresno, chairman of Pacific Ethanol, has also contributed to McCain's effort.

But none of the major farming and ranching political action committees have done so - Western United Dairymen, Western Growers, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Grain & Feed Association and none of the state Farm Bureau groups have given to McCain's campaign.

Obama is not accepting PAC money.

Farm policy issues

Neither candidate has made farming and ranching a major part of their political careers; neither sits on the Agriculture Committee in the Senate and neither comes from an agricultural background.

Part of agriculture's tepid support of McCain stems from his long-standing opposition to the federal farm bill. McCain sponsored a measure in 2006 that would have eliminated a $74 million proposal to encourage schools to provide more fresh fruits and veggies - a measure sought after by the nation's $50 billion specialty crop sector.

His attempt failed and Obama was among those who helped defeat it.

McCain has also opposed ethanol subsidies to the extent that he skipped the Iowa caucuses in the 2000 election and barely bothered to campaign there during this primary season. He finished fourth in this year's caucuses.

McCain now says that ethanol deserves to be part of his "all-of-the-above" approach to weaning America off foreign oil. His platform would tap all domestic energy sources save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He dodged a question about oil and natural gas exploration on the Front Range of the Rockies when asked about it by the magazine Field & Stream; that region is vital to elk and deer populations and much of it is used as grazing land by ranchers.

Obama says he favors some increase in oil drilling, but he is a newcomer to the idea - opposing it until this year. Obama's focus has primarily been on renewable energy, including biofuels such as ethanol.

Both candidates say they support the Conservation Reserve Program and both candidates say they support capping direct subsidies for growers of program crops to those households earning no more than $250,000.

Trade and taxes

McCain has historically been stronger than Obama in terms of opening new free trade agreements - a key step toward expanding American agriculture's reach in the world marketplace.

McCain's tax proposals would also help more farmers and ranchers. Both candidates want to change the inheritance tax code, but McCain would exempt all estates worth less than $10 million and would reduce the tax rate imposed on those estates still affected. Obama would exempt all estates worth $7 million or less and would preserve the current 42 percent tax rate for anything worth more than $7 million.

McCain would keep President Bush's capital gains tax cuts in place. Obama would too, but only for those households earning less than $250,000 a year. He would restore the pre-tax cut rate of 20 percent for those households earning more.

On climate change, McCain would also exempt farmers from strictures under his proposed cap-and-trade system on greenhouse gas emissions, but would give agriculture the opportunity to sell credits for the trees they plant or crops they grow.

Obama also wants to create a cap-and-trade program, but would not exempt agriculture from strictures. He would allow farmers to sell credits, however.

Hank Shaw is the California editor based in Sacramento.

McCain’s ag team
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona announced his "Farm & Ranch Team" last week. These officials will act as advisers to the campaign's rural initiatives.

Several Republicans from Oregon, California, Washington and Idaho are among McCain's group, including:

Washington Farm Bureau President

Steve Appel, president of Washington Farm Bureau

Barry Bushue, vice president of American Farm Bureau Federation, president of Oregon Farm Bureau

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho

John C. Harris of Harris Ranch beef, California

Bill Jones, chairman of Pacific Ethanol, California

A.G. Kawamura, California Secretary of Agriculture

Doug Mosebar, president of California Farm Bureau, Western region director American Farm Bureau

Thomas Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers Association

E-mail: hshaw@capitalpress.com.

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